I often ponder the mystery of life and this journey I’m on. Even though I am but a finite being trying to understand the Infinite, it is vitally important to me that I continue to search for truth and understanding to guide my love and compassion toward making this world better. I strive to understand how good and evil coexist, how all of this works together under a loving God and my own purpose in life; but, in many regards, it remains a mystery. I have learned to expect change, to embrace change; but, I was not prepared for the horrific events that turned my life upside down on September 11, 2001! Life had suddenly become an oppressive journey and my soul ached. My daughter had just been violently murdered and the repercussions would be felt around the world.
I awoke that morning feeling the richness of God’s creation and the fullness of life as I drove eastward along the tree-lined country road on the way to work. The glory and the wonder were made manifest by the magnificence of the dawning day as the golden sunrise graced the cloudless blue sky. On days like this I feel a profound interconnection with all of life as I allow my mind to become one with the mystery. This affirmation gives me hope and the courage to face the trials and tribulations along the way. Little did I know that soon this glorious day would become the absolute worst nightmare imaginable! September 11, 2001 was the beginning of a journey that would profoundly alter my life, utterly devastate my soul and fill my heart with excruciating sadness. Yet, through it all, during times of darkness, utter despair and intense pain, I was comforted and filled with the presence of a greater love and understanding. The seeds of hope were ever present; even in my darkest hour.
On that fateful morning, my daughter Alicia was working as a flight attendant on United Flight 175. She had a burning desire for travel and to experience life’s adventures, a joyfulness that emanated from her soul and a love that reached out to all of life. Alicia had developed the innate ability to look deep into the soul of another and bring forth the goodness that resides within. Amazingly, she always had heartfelt compassion for others and an understanding of the mystery that intricately connected her with all of life. Her friends called her an “old soul” because of her wisdom; and she had a smile that was said by many could, “light up a room”. Alicia was our firstborn, the oldest of four, and always seemed to live life at a higher level than most people do. Thus, the striking contrast with the hate-filled and malevolent forces that took her life!
Grieving the loss of a child is perhaps the most debilitating of all losses. As a parent, we pour our all into our children. They are deeply connected with us and bring us abundant joy, love and enduring hope for a better future. My children have enriched my life immeasurably and I would sooner give up my own life if I could spare them. I have always felt this interconnection with my children at a soul level, beyond the external senses. It is as if they are extensions of my own soul; separate, yet a part of me. My wife, Bev’s connection goes even deeper. As a mother, our children’s lives began in her womb.
Our journey of grief has been long and arduous. The pain has been immense; the sadness, deep and resonant; the feelings of desolation and despair, overwhelming at times. My heart felt as if it had been completely shattered. Where do we find strength to go on after such a horrendous loss? How do we reconcile the violent murder of our child at the hands of religious zealots, politically motivated by hatred and revenge? This was our dilemma and these were unchartered waters. We now had the unwanted distinction and notoriety of being a 9/11 family with all of the political ramifications and raging controversy about war and all of its injustices! For us, we could not fathom more violence and more innocent people dying because of our tragedy. Early on in our grieving we chose the path of peace and justice in response to the 9/11 attack; sadly, my country chose the downward spiral of war and more violence.
Our choice was not easy! The dilemma we faced was what to do with such powerful, potentially destructive feelings that come from the murder of your child? Do we let our anger and the burning need for revenge direct our course, ultimately destroying our own souls? Do we deny the feelings of grief and despair through escapism or denial? Grief is different for each of us. I knew I could not deny the intense emotions of grief that churned inside! If suppressed they become like an active volcano, eventually exploding with a destructive force! Within grief lies the potential to yield greater understanding and deeper compassion, a regenerative force that can be used for good; or a destructive force that can direct our course with hatred, anger and vengeance. Ultimately, we choose which we will give power. In a moment of clarity, I soon realized that I not only needed to allow myself to grieve but also strive to understand all that I could about the underlying conditions behind terrorism and this heinous crime against humanity. More importantly, I recognized I must eventually learn to forgive. For it is in the forgiving that we allow ourselves to move beyond the destructive feelings of anger and the need for retribution. It was through forgiveness that gave me greater compassion, deeper understanding and hope for “peaceful tomorrows”.
Forgiveness is often misunderstood and greatly underestimated in its healing power. For me, it comes from my faith in a loving God who gives us free will to choose good or evil; those who choose goodness from love in their hearts become one with the divine and all of life; those who choose evil out of a self-serving need that comes from the ego, choose a path that leads to disconnectedness, away from divine love and understanding. We all struggle with this battle between good and evil that rages on within each of us. By choosing to forgive, I was not excusing or condoning the actions of those who took my daughters’ life. I was merely choosing love by letting go of the anger, the hatred and the need for revenge. I would not allow my feelings of sadness and pain become a destructive force, thus creating more pain and suffering for others. I knew from the onset that I must strive to understand this horrific act of evil and the political, socio-economic and religious ramifications behind it. I felt compelled to do my part to bring about change that would prevent this from ever happening again, for my children and their children’s sake. Through my search for understanding, I was made to see the injustices and inequities that are so prevalent in our world and I developed greater compassion for those who are suffering everywhere. This was a gift that I was given, like a phoenix rising, that arose out of the ashes at “Ground Zero”; the ashes that included the unidentifiable remains of my daughter.
Consequently, I began speaking out against the pending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The thought of more civilian casualties as a result of our warring action was unbearably painful. In my eyes, justice would not be served by destroying homes, villages and more innocent lives. Those responsible for the murder of Alicia and the nearly three thousand others on 9/11 needed to be brought to justice in an internationalcourt of law for all to see. Immediately after September 11th, the whole world expressed compassion and support for America. There was a willingness on their part to join with us to overcome terrorism and bring those behind this heinous crime against mankind to justice. But, because of our government’s campaign of “shock and awe”, driven by a need for power and vengeance, we alienated many who supported us. In our rush to war, we destroyed hundreds of thousands of innocent lives and devastated two countries in the process; one of which had no connection to 9/11! Our government had been given an opportunity to build stronger relationships with other countries, to join together with a prevailing sense of justice; and we fell short of our ideals. We could have responded in a way that demonstrated respect for human life, the sovereignty of other nations and justice based on higher principles of understanding; but, the leaders of our country were hell-bent on demonstrating to the world how mighty and powerful the United States of America was. After all, we have the largest arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in the world.
I went on a campaign to stop this vicious cycle of violence. More violence wasn’t the solution! To my amazement, there were other 9/11 families who felt the same as me. On February 15, 2003 at a protest rally in New York City, Bev and I joined with members of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. These inspiring peacemakers, who had also lost loved ones on 9/11, would become our extended family, our support and inspiration in our efforts to create a more just and peaceful world. Invigorated by our new friends from Peaceful Tomorrows, I stepped up my campaign to speak out to the media; I wrote articles for magazines and newspapers and did documentaries against the war. I traveled and gave speeches all over the United States, some in Canada and then to Italy for the keynote address at the national “Alleati de la Pace” (Peace Alliance) Conference. While there I met with the Bishop of Forli, government officials, the media and spoke at secondary schools.
I was invited and spoke at the Department of Peace Conference in Washington D.C. and addressed the House of Representatives to introduce the Department of Peace Bill. Bev and I responded to an invitation to speak at the American Muslim Voice Conference in California where we heard painful stories of hate crimes and injustices being done to American Muslims as a result of 9/11. I was invited and spoke at colleges and universities across our country, including North Dakota State University for the World Peace Day and the University of Illinois in conjunction with the Eyes Wide Open display. In Michigan, I spoke at Kalamazoo College, Schoolcraft College and the University of Michigan. In Ohio, I did presentations at Wilmington College and Urbana University on several occasions. I often went into college classrooms and also spoke at high schools in Michigan and Ohio. I was invited to speak at churches across the United States and in Canada.
I often spoke in conjunction with other peace events at public forums in Kalamazoo, Livonia, Chelsea and Ann Arbor in Michigan; Urbana and Wilmington in Ohio; and in New York City. I joined with other peace organizations in their efforts and occasionally was asked to present, such as Veterans for Peace, Michigan Peaceworks, National Peace Alliance, National Peace Academy, Champaign County Peace Alliance, United for Peace and Justice, Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, to name a few. I also chaired the “Season for Nonviolence” committee at Schoolcraft College and organized programs for the college and the community. I attended protest and peace marches in New York City, Washington D.C., Ann Arbor and other places. I helped organize, spoke and gave a workshop at the 7th Annual World Nonviolence Conference in Detroit, Michigan.
Early on, we started the Alicia Titus Memorial Peace Fund at Urbana University in Ohio and annually present peace education programs for the public. As a part of this, we hosted widely acclaimed author, spiritual leader and social activist, Marianne Williamson. From Baghdad, we invited Nisreen, a school teacher and a victim of our war in Iraq, along with Bruce Wallace who founded 121 Project, a program for dialogue between high school students in Baghdad and New York City. We also hosted speakers on dispute resolution and conflict mediation programs for schools, brought in noted authors and peace activists. All of this was difficult and painful while in the throes of grief and our country at war. But, I had never felt more convinced of the rightness of my actions, guided by my growing compassion, than what we were doing in our efforts to create a more just and peaceful world.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it…Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder the hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate…Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Through it all, Alicia continually affirmed our choices by her angelic presence along our journey. She is always with us in spirit. When asked by a news reporter at a peace march at the Republican National Convention in New York City in 2004, “what Alicia would do if she were here?” my wife, Bev, didn’t hesitate and replied, “Alicia would be leading it”! And, she would have. She would have adamantly opposed more killing in her name!
Grief can be debilitating; but, succumbing to its powerful forces for vengeance would not bring my Alicia back, nor would it help to improve the underlying conditions behind the violence that took her life. To paraphrase Robert Frost, I chose “the road less traveled” and my hope is that it will “make all the difference”. At Alicia’s Memorial Service, over five hundred people joined hands and sang, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me”. This has been my credo since 9/11, as the words of Mahatma Gandhi echo in my mind, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”.
John Titus is the father of Alicia, who was a flight attendant onboard United Flight 175 on September 11, 2001. He recently retired from higher education where he served as an administrator, counselor and faculty in Michigan and Ohio. He and his wife, Bev divide their time between Ohio and Michigan, love to travel and spending time with family. Their work in creating a more peaceful and just world is a lifelong commitment in honor of Alicia and all who have suffered from human violence.