My oldest brother Jim Potorti worked for Marsh McLennan on the 95th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. It wasn’t until three days after 9/11 that we understood the extent to which his office had been wiped out by the first plane impact, and although our belief was that he died instantly, one of the realities was that we would never know the exact circumstances of his death. Was he at his desk or having a conversation on a different floor? Was he washing his hands, pouring a cup of coffee, or engaged in another trivial routine of the day?
The bottom line was that he was gone, that he would not be turning up in a burn ward or found wandering the streets with amnesia. My parents’ acceptance of this reality made a significant impression on me. My mom was doubled over in pain, calling Jim’s name and saying “it hurts, it hurts.” Then she said something else: “I don’t want anyone else to feel the pain I’m feeling right now.” This, together with my father’s acceptance of reality, absent rancor or anger—he had learned the meaning of loss during his service in World War II—set the tone for my own journey. It quickly became clear that a militaristic response was inevitable, along with the deaths of innocent civilians like my brother, my mother and my father. I made my first public statement on the matter to a local newspaper reporter: “I think we should seek justice, but we should not punish other people to seek justice.”
Because I was already a contributing writer to the Independent Weekly newspaper in Durham, and delivered occasional radio commentaries for Pacifica Network News, I had an outlet for sharing my views further, as when a reporter from the Philadelphia City Paper invited me to write a guest commentary. With Thanksgiving and Christmas approaching, the thought of a nation celebrating family and material comfort against the backdrop of bombing Afghanistan made me deeply uncomfortable. I envisioned making a statement of some kind with other 9/11 families who shared my desire for alternatives. Maybe we’d stand in front of the White House Christmas tree and read a statement calling attention to the other innocent people who were still suffering. But how? I really had no idea.
So I called the Institute for Public Accuracy, a Washington, D.C. clearing house for progressive views and guests for the news media. Their communications director Sam Husseini was a contact from my reporting work, and now it was my turn to ask his advice. Husseini lit up upon getting my call—he had recently published a press release with comments from 9/11 family members opposed to the war in Afghanistan, and had also heard from Kathy Kelly, founder of Voices in the Wilderness, that her group was wanting to organize a peace walk with 9/11 family members from the Pentagon to the site of the World Trade Center. Call her, he told me, and I did. Kelly explained the idea of the walk and said it would begin on November 25.
Before I had time to even imagine doing this alone, I heard via email from Barry Amundson in Oakland, California. He and his partner, Kelly Campbell, were interested in hooking up with other 9/11 family members who were speaking out against the war and had read an article I’d written in the Independent Weekly. I told them about the walk from Washington to New York and invited them to call Kathy. Soon Kelly, Barry, his brother Ryan and sister-in-law Amber—the widow of Craig Amundson, Barry and Ryan’s brother who had died at the Pentagon—were on board with the walk, making it a lot less daunting. I left my one year-old son at home with my then-wife and joined them in Philadelphia, later meeting Colleen Kelly in New York City.
It was an odd time to be marching for peace through cities so directly affected by the catastrophe of 9/11, a time when people would yell in anger out of car windows and express their disbelief to our faces—“the sixties are over” was heard more than once—but in retrospect a strangely hopeful time when we came to know members of the peace community that had existed long before 9/11 and would come to be so supportive of our efforts. We were somehow finding our voice, even if we were only speaking to churches, school groups or each other, and it was cathartic to speak publicly about our feelings. Since our families had suffered the ultimate loss, it was liberating in a way to have “nothing left to lose.” I thought about the losses we were inflicting on other families—“collateral damage”— in far more desperate circumstances, and who were receiving little of the love and support we had received from all over the world; how would “nothing left to lose” manifest itself in their lives and in their reactions to what had happened to them?
We arrived in New York City at the beginning of December, and over the next two and a half months, starting with a mission and goals statement scribbled on a napkin and ending with a press conference at the UN Church Center on February 14, 2002, we would create September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows from the ingenuity of our members and with the support of longstanding peace and justice organizations. Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange would take four of our future members to Afghanistan to meet with our counterparts, civilians directly affected by terrorism and war; the Fellowship of Reconciliation had offered us their fiscal sponsorship as we began to raise operating funds; Barry Amundson would create and maintain our first web site; the American Friends Service Committee and Hague Appeal for Peace would lend their critical support in our early days. We did not reinvent the wheel, but became part of a movement.
My fondest memories of my work with Peaceful Tomorrows have been about ordinary people who have kept their heads, their souls and their good spirits in the face of extraordinary circumstances: Japanese survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Israelis and Palestinians committed to breaking the cycle of violence; family members of those killed in the 2005 train bombings in Spain; and Americans of all stripes that I’ve met at speaking events, trying like me to figure out the right course of action as we move through these incredibly challenging times, wanting to rise above them and to create a better country and a better place for the people we love.
I think we continue to have two choices about how we live our lives: to believe that September 11th was an event of such magnitude that it requires throwing up barriers to the rest of the world and remaining in a state of perpetual war; or to recognize that in the 21st century barriers are no longer an option, war is no longer an option, and we must engage the rest of the world in the mutual act of survival. The first option requires me to live in a world of “us” versus “them,” to approach others with a sense of adversity and to anticipate the worst. By choosing the second option, I align myself not with the few who would do me harm, but with the universe of people who share my aspirations, my joys and my sense of belonging to something bigger than myself.
Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying that those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither liberty nor security. Today, through my work with Peaceful Tomorrows, I’ve come to believe that my liberty and my security rest in my relationships with other people, that my destiny is tied up with their destinies. This attitude has not undone my loss, but has replaced it with a genuine sense of peace—and purpose.