by John Titus
Throughout my life, I’ve always been in awe of the mystery of life’s journey. I relate to the Lakota concept of God (Wankan Tanka) or Great Mystery. Life abounds with changes. We go from joyousness to sorrow; from a loving state to anger, fear and distrust; from understanding to confusion; from inner peace to chaos…. We find a direction and purpose in life and plan for an unknown future that creates an illusion of safety and security; then, in the blink of an eye, it all changes.
In my wildest imagination, I could never have envisioned being here in front of you, speaking of my beloved daughter, about how she was violently murdered by terrorists and how the course my life has changed since. But, I am here. And, although I am deeply saddened by the conditions that brought me here and always will be I am, nonetheless, honored to be here with all of you on this day.
Let me begin by giving you a little background and a glimpse into the life of my daughter, Alicia, the horrific events of September 11th for my family and me, the consequent grief we’ve experienced, and the journey that has brought me here through my work with my fellow sojourners through this tragedy, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.
Alicia is the oldest of my four children. She was born on June 11th, 1973. She was 28 years old when she boarded United Flight 175 in Boston on the morning of September 11th. That morning, she was working as a flight attendant, a job she had accepted 9 months prior. Previously, she had worked 5 years in corporate America with a promising future in Marketing and related areas. She realized that corporate America was not fulfilling for her, she wanted to travel, to experience the fullness of life and not get trapped into a job that would consume her. She also wanted to return to college, work toward her Ph D and eventually teach college students; something she had decided would be fulfilling and useful.
There seemed to be an urgency for Alicia to live as much life as possible in a concentrated way. She had traveled around the world, savoring in the richness of the diverse cultures she experienced; she had sky-dived, scuba dived and snow-boarded down double black diamond mountains. She loved life and she loved people, wherever she went.
Alicia was an incredible young woman from the day she was born; precocious, energetic, astutely intelligent, talented, athletic, adventuresome, beautiful, compassionate, humble and very gifted in many ways. Many have described her as an “old soul” because of her wisdom; others have said she would light up a room by her mere presence. She had the innate ability to find the goodness in each person she met, and bring that to the forefront. But, what stands out foremost in my mind about Alicia was her genuine compassion and caring for everyone and all of life. She was truly a peacemaker in everything she did. This has given me strength of purpose and clear direction in my life since her death.
Alicia was loved by everyone in my extended family and many, many friends. Grieving her loss and reckoning with her violent murder has been very painful and difficult. For me, it has felt like my own heart had been ripped out; for my wife, the journey has been even more difficult. Alicia was my wife, Bev’s, best friend. They were like sisters in many ways and as close as any mother-daughter could be.
Immediately after Alicia’s death, I was blessed with many gifts from Alicia in the form of visitations through dreams, visions and insights. Prior to these events, there was a small part of me that looked with suspicion at communications with the deceased, but the messages I have received from Alicia have been so clear, so profound and so real, I could not deny them.
One thing I was concerned about early on in my grief was where Alicia was on the plane at the time of the hijacking. One and possibly two flight attendants had been stabbed during the hijacking of United Flight 175 and I worried that Alicia might have been one of them.
The day after her death, during meditation and prayer, Alicia came to me and I clearly saw her in the back of the plane holding a young child’s head in her lap. She was caressing his hair and had a very peaceful, almost angelic look on her face. Two months later, while scanning the pictures of the passengers on her flight, I saw the little boy I had seen in my vision. A year later, the FBI confirmed that Alicia was stationed in the middle part of the plane, away from the First Class area where the stabbings occurred. Around that same time period, the sister of an acquaintance of ours, who is clairvoyant, without having any previous knowledge of this, told me the exact same message as my vision.
During a dream, Alicia and I were standing outside a building at the edge of the campus where I achieved my Master’s Degree. It was a bright and sunny day and the sky was clear blue. All of a sudden a huge jet came into view about 50 feet above our heads and crashed into a building less than a hundred feet away. We both went running to where the plane had crashed and managed to climb to the top of the building which was completely flat. There was an open stairwell that went down into the building and we could hear moans and screams coming from below. Smoke was billowing out. Alicia and I ran over to the stairwell and headed down. I stopped halfway down and Alicia went the rest of the way and shepherded the victims up the stairs. She and I brought them into the light and away from the chaos. I remember the look of confusion and despair that was so apparent on their faces and how they followed us like little children. Over time the significance of this dream became more pronounced and inspired me to do what I am doing. It also comforted me about Alicia’s role in leading the deceased souls toward the heavenly light in the afterlife.
When Alicia was a small child, I would hold her in my arms and dance for hours to the music. She loved dancing so much we started calling her boogie. While at a memorial service in Boston for the flight crews of United 175 and American 11, in late September of 2001, I had an incredible experience. The Service was very moving with the commemoration ceremony, the release of white doves for each of the fallen crew members; Bette Midler sang “Wind Beneath My Wings”, and the Bagpipers played “Amazing Grace”. But the moment that I will always cherish is when the Boston Philharmonic Stringed Quartet played a beautiful waltz. I closed my eyes and immediately was in a huge ballroom overlooking the valley below; the mountains loomed in the distance. I was dancing with Alicia who had a magnanimous smile, she was dressed in a long flowing white gown and she appeared as I would envision an angel. As we danced, I remember distinctly how real it felt-her touch, the moving air, her complete presence. As the music came to an end, we danced out onto the open deck overlooking the valley and she drifted away. I was left with the sense that her soul was alive and well, in her heavenly place in the afterlife and she was filled with the Divine. She had gifted me with a visit from beyond the veil and all was well within her soul.
Through other visits from Alicia and answered prayers I knew I must do something to turn my grief into good. I could not let the pain, the anger, the fear and confusion control my life. I knew immediately that I must devote my life to make this world a better place. I also knew that I needed to grow my understanding of the underlying issues of political violence, war and social injustice. Clarity had appeared through the confusion, the pain and the tears.
I miss my daughter terribly. I have shed an ocean of tears since her death, but I know that her soul lives on and she continues to do good works in her new life. I also know that I must go where my heart leads me and strive for greater understanding to guide me in my own life since the murder of my daughter. To ignore or deny this calling would compromise my own soul. I also realized that if I did not act to change the underlying conditions that perpetuated the tragedy of September 11th, I would have to accept the inevitability that it would happen again. If we don’t devote our lives for the cause of good, then, in essence, we are supporting the very thing we oppose. Evil thrives on complacency!
I’ve often stated that grief has the power to destroy us if we don’t find our way out of the depression, the loneliness, the sadness, the despair and pain. Early on in my grief, there were times when it felt as if I was spiraling downward into a deep, dark abyss. I remember thinking that if I went too far into this dark hole I questioned whether I could I find my way out. Yet, no matter how far down I drifted, how depressed, sad or desolate I felt, I could always see a light in the distance and I could always feel the presence of God within me and around me. I knew by the grace of God, I would find my way back. And, I brought with me greater understanding, deeper compassion and a stronger resolve to do my share in making this world better. I did not want my grandchildren to have to live in a world in which fear, misunderstanding, distrust and hatred prevailed. This is not what God wills for us. The sad reality is-this is what we humans have created for ourselves!
I began speaking out against the war at public forums, churches, colleges, universities, and high schools; I wrote letters and emails to Congress, articles for newspapers and magazines; did TV interviews, documentaries for Public Television. I joined with others who were against the war in protest marches with numbers in the hundreds of thousands…I did not want to have anything to do with the killing of more innocent civilians that would surely result from a declaration of war. These casualties of war are often referred to as “collateral damage” as they are conveniently labeled by those who wish to depersonalize and hide the fact that these are innocent human lives dying needlessly! After all, this is what my daughter was; a civilian casualty of political violence which erupted into war. Surprisingly, there were other September 11th Families who responded the same as me organized under the name “September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows”. When Bev and I discovered “Peaceful Tomorrows” in early 2002, we knew we had found our kindred souls in this daunting quest that lie ahead.
According to Robert McNamara and James Blight in the book “Wilson’s Ghost”, in the 20th century it is estimated that there were 160 million deaths as a result of war. Over 100 million of these were civilians. The estimates for this century are much grimmer as the overall numbers grow significantly and the casualty rate for civilians increases to 80-90%. The crux of the problem is that we can’t kill everyone who stands in opposition to our ways! War is not the solution to the ills of our world. Hatred only results in more hatred; violence only produces more violence; and as Dr. Martin Luther King so eloquently stated in 1967:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction….
The chain reaction of evil — hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars — must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation. –Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
I believe that all human beings are interconnected in ways we cannot even fathom. And, I believe that we are all a part of God and God is within each one of us. The way that I envision it, we are like the cells of the body. To function at our highest level, we must all work together in order to achieve the fullness of what God wants for us. Yet, like the body, there are cancerous and diseased cells that keep us from our optimal health. Rather than wage war on both the bad and the good cells, which is our traditional approach, perhaps we should be looking at the underlying causes and addressing these; searching for ways to rebuild the diseased cells while strengthening the healthy ones. The goodwill and harmony this would create is beyond comprehension. This is the hope I have for my children’s’ children.
Like cells who are deprived of life-giving nutrients and working at odds with each other, if there are human beings suffering anywhere in this world, then each of us feels this suffering at some level. We cannot turn our eyes to the inequities, injustices, prejudice, genocide, untreated diseases, pervasive hunger, poverty or any of the conditions that predispose human suffering. There can be no lasting peace while such human suffering and injustice exists! Every day there are between 30 and 40 thousand children dying because of hunger or treatable disease; more than 3 billion people live on less than $2 per day in this world. The discrepancy between the rich and the poor is becoming greater and at the same time we see a shrinking of the middle class. A small minority of people hold the majority of the wealth. And, here is the real clincher-there is enough resources on this earth to accommodate everyone!
For some mysterious reason, our system seems to thrive on this inequity and we rationalize it away. As a result, we find ourselves at war and at odds with our neighbors. God’s commandment to “Love thy neighbor as thyself” wasn’t just referring to the people in the house next door. As the world becomes smaller through technological advancements, we come to realize that we are all neighbors to one another.
Could we ever learn to love our enemies as Jesus directed us? At some level, I believe we can. But, as Martin Luther King light-heartedly said, “thank God we don’t have to like them!” I can learn to love that part of my enemy where God exists and make every effort possible to help bring that to the light. If that fails and evil prevails, then I can make every effort to bring them to justice…but, I don’t have to become like them by striking back with greater vengeance through more violence! There has been enough human violence! If violence were the solution to the world problems surely, with the millions of people who have already died as a result of human conflict, we would have resolved the problem by now! Instead, we see an increase in the amount of violence in our homes, in our schools, in our communities, in our country and in our world. Mahatma Gandhi said: “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”
Throughout my journey of grief, I’ve spent many hours in deep reflection, meditation and prayer. I’ve done extensive readings on peace and war, social justice and injustice and related areas. I’ve had exhaustive conversations with people of passionate beliefs one way or the other. And, I have come to the realization that theremust be a better way to resolve human conflict than the violent way we have chosen. We spend billions of dollars in developing weapons of mass destruction, training troops on how to fight wars, strategizing, analyzing and planning for war and we allocate billions of dollars to provide military support to our allies so they can wage wars with the same efficiency as we do. According to a recent article in the Newspaper, the US increased the military spending we provide to Israel to $30 billion dollars a year. This amounts to $8.2 million dollars per day! Our own military spending is in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually. We spend an inordinate amount of time and money in educating, training and preparing for war and very little on peace.
But, what if…what if we committed a percentage of this time, effort and money to train peacemakers at the same level of expertise as our military officers? They could then provide information, creative solutions and tools such as nonviolent conflict mediation at all levels of dispute and address the potential for violence in our homes, schools, communities, country and world. Or, what if we used a portion of this money to develop programs to alleviate curable diseases and to provide healthcare for those in need all over the world; what if we allocated some of this money to feed the malnourished; or to treat, house and educate the homeless…and the list goes on. What if!
We are only limited by our own fears, our ignorance and lack of imagination. We think nothing of spending billions on war while social programs, funding for education, health care and other vital services are sacrificing at a fraction of this. It is time to let go of the fear that guides our actions, a time to grow our understanding and wisdom, a time to open our hearts to allow for greater compassion and a time to move forward on this evolutionary journey of life. In his book, “Spiritual Quest: the Evolution of the Human Soul”, Robert Keck researches the history of violence for over 10,000 years. He states very profoundly that the collective human soul is evolving toward a more peaceful existence; and as a human race we are only in the adolescent stage of our spiritual development. I look around me and strongly concur.
We the people of the United States were lead into this war in Iraq under false pretenses. The Bush administration deceived the American people and manipulated the media, creating mass fear and near panic conditions. Unfounded statements were repeatedly made about Iraq relative to nuclear weapons, other weapons of mass destruction that did not exist and supposed ties between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. According to the best intelligence available there was no known connection. The Bush administration has continually used the tragedy of September 11th to elicit fear and to justify the war in Iraq (which was planned long before September 11th by the Project for the New American Century). And, I strongly resent this! How dare they use my daughter’s murder to justify this unjust war that had no known connection! Many intelligence analysts have stated that since the US invasion of Iraq, the number of terrorist organizations and terrorist occurrences have increased significantly, attributing the increase directly to the US military action in Iraq.
Now we find ourselves at a crossroads. Do we leave and allow the civil war to explode? Or, do we continue sacrificing our soldiers’ lives and valuable resources as we find ourselves in the midst of a violent civil war as it continues to explode daily? There is no winning this war militarily. But, American pride and the growing fear of another terrorist attack keeps us supporting this war; and the casualties mount daily!
Many of us strongly opposed this war from before the onset and saw clearly the mess we find ourselves in long before we dropped the first bomb. Most people are admitting that it was a mistake. Yet, many people think we ought to continue, building on the mistake we made. I don’t see the wisdom of this. And, I don’t buy the rational that the only solution is to stay the course, create a troop surge and trust the president. I think we need to engage the international community, develop our diplomacy and use our creativity to find a real solution to the quagmire we have created.
Those of us who lost a loved one to the September 11th tragedy are on a personal quest to uncover the whole truth, as you would with any murder. From meetings with the FBI, special investigations by our attorneys and others, and extensive research, it has become clear that much of the information that would help us understand more about September 11th has been left out, redacted or denied. There were many things known to the intelligence community that were absent from the 9/11 Commission Report. Yet, reason would tell us that it is only with a full understanding about all aspects of this heinous act of violence directed at the United States that we could begin to understand and make the necessary changes to prevent another such tragedy from happening in the future. To this point, all we have been given is a mere glimpse of the truth and I believe we owe it to Alicia, the 3,000 other victims and the hundreds of thousands of lives who have been destroyed since then to know everything possible about this attack; why and how it happened, what the underlying factors were, and what we can do differently to prevent this from happening in the future!
Throughout my journey of discovery, I have questioned with great scrutiny whether the tragedy of September 11th was preventable. Hindsight is 20/20 but there were many failures along the way. Questions come to mind like: what if the airlines would have acted on the 64 FAA warnings they received in the 3 months prior to 9/11 warning of a pending attack using US commercial airplanes? What if airport security had been made aware of these warnings and had done their jobs conscientiously in accordance with their own training manuals? What if Boeing had acted responsibly and replaced the cockpit doors with stronger doors as it had been court-ordered to do prior to September 11th? (Boeing paid over a million dollars in fines to avoid doing so) What if President Bush had acted on the Clinton Administration intelligence handed over to them concerning the terrorist related activities of bin Laden and al Qaida? What if the Bush Administration had acted on the numerous CIA, FBI and other intelligence reports specific to the pending attacks that significantly increased in duration and specificity prior to 9/11? What if the CIA had shared information with the FBI and vice versa about the activity of suspicious Middle Eastern men with ties to terrorist organizations training to become commercial pilots in Arizona and Minnesota? What if the FBI would have acted responsibly on the evidence uncovered by Colleen Rowley, an FBI Agent who uncovered the Moussaouii plot in August of 2001? What if Bush or Clinton had captured bin Laden or thwarted al Qaida’s plans prior to 9/11 (Clinton had sent bombers into Afghanistan on two occasion in an effort to get bin Laden-once it was aborted because officials from UAE were in bin Laden’s training camp, the other time they missed him by a couple of hours because he had been forewarned)? What if the United States had taken a more active role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations after the Carter Administration’s efforts? What if our soldiers had been educated about the cultural sensitivities of the Saudi culture and Islam’s traditions when they were stationed outside of Mecca during the first Gulf War? What if we had people in the higher levels of the government advising our president on issues of cultural sensitivity, historically relevant information and underlying issues and nonviolent conflict mediation techniques specific to the Islam? And the list goes on…
It has been said that history repeats itself. There is certain inevitability in this statement so long as we continue to approach problems the same way we always have. War does not bring about lasting peace! There is no peace in the heart that is suffering from injustice, human violence or the loss of loved ones; not until they find it from a deeper well. More often than not, the violence of war perpetuates more of the same, produces greater animosity and distances people from each other. I always say that God is very patient with us human beings as we continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.
Some may interpret my critique of this war as bitterness, but it’s not. I am very passionate about this, at times frustrated, often perplexed, but always hopeful. I believe in the goodness of people. I believe that God’s love is abundant and unconditional. And, I believe that we can learn and grow from our mistakes. Over the years, I have worked closely with a wide variety of people from the mentally ill to brilliant college students and future leaders of tomorrow. I have taught in our prison system and have worked with “emotionally disturbed” inner city adolescents. In the past 6 years, I’ve met and collaborated with some exceptional peacemakers from all over the world, many of whom had been victimized by violence. The one thing that I always search for and most often find within the hearts of all people is the presence of the Divine. This gives me hope! Without hope we are destined to live a life of desperation. Without hope, we are destined for a desolate journey!
That goodness and the sense of the Divine being in each one of us speaks of the essence of who Alicia was. She had the innate ability, the reverence to look for and find that place within each person where the spirit of God resides. This incredible gift, so evident in my daughter, is filled with compassion and wisdom. It is a gift I will cherish and continue to strive for in my own life. If indeed we can learn to recognize the Divine within each person we encounter along life’s journey, we will truly feel that divine interconnection that binds us together and learn to feel the pain and the joy of another. Then it would be much more difficult to turn away from human tragedy or to inflict pain and suffering upon one another.
In late September of 2001, Bev and I had the difficult task of sorting through all of Alicia’s earthly possessions in her apartment on Guerrero Avenue in San Francisco. You can’t begin to imagine how painful and distressing this was for us. On Alicia’s bed stand we found the Prayer of St. Francis of Assissi, earmarked in a book of inspirational readings. It has been a source of inspiration for us. It is called the Simple Prayer:
Lord make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, let me sow pardon.
Where there is doubt, let me sow hope.
Where there is darkness, let me sow light.
And, where there is sadness, let me sow joy.
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not seek to be consoled as to console.
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love.
For it is in the giving that we receive.
It is in the pardoning that we are pardoned.
It is in the dying that we are born to eternal life.
I challenge each of you as you go forth on this day to open your hearts to the love that abounds and begin to live your life in accordance with this love. When we are loving we are able to feel the connection with God and with each other. This was Alicia’s legacy that I give to you. May you go in peace.
After the presentation I showed Peaceful Tomorrow’s Documentary entitled, Beyond Retribution, which gave more insight into the work of Peaceful Tomorrows. I also added some additional commentary on the work of PT relative to international networking. The next day I hosted two sessions on the campus of North Dakota State University as a part of the daylong activities that were a part of Global Peace Day. It was encouraging and inspiring to see and hear some of the activities that are taking place in North Dakota and to connect with some really wonderful peacemakers there. It gives me great hope to know that so many good people are out there doing the work necessary to make our world better.