On Tuesday, September 11th, 2001 I came home late in the day to find an unprecedented number of messages on my answering machine. I thought of my older brother Jim, an American Airlines pilot who often flies cross-country flights. I thought of my husband Alan, who was out of town on client visits, one of which was at the world trade center, but I was pretty sure that was scheduled for Wednesday. I never thought of my sister-in-law.
Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas was my little brother Jack’s wife. She had gone to New Jersey to attend her grandmother’s funeral. She had begged Jack to accompany her. At the last minute, she had boarded an earlier flight than the one on which she was scheduled to return to the west coast. She was three months pregnant.
She died in a field in Pennsylvania, along with 48 other passengers and crew on Flight 93, the flight that fought back.
The next day, while I was leading a Brownie troop through their opening ceremonies for our weekly meeting, I suggested a moment of silence to reflect on the previous day’s tragedies. Our memorial moment was marred by a mother in the circle talking openly with another parent. She was avidly relating an eleventh-person “almost” acquaintance she had with someone at the World Trade Center.
I was dumbstruck. This parent considered attempting to impress another person with a completely spurious non-connection to a national horror more important than our peaceful observance. I resolved at that moment not to share my open and very real family wounds with anyone in the community lest I attract such cloak-touchers. Within a week, when everyone around me considered boarding an airplane an act of sheer madness, I quietly flew with my oldest daughter to Lauren’s memorial service in San Rafael, California.
As the months passed I worried about the effect of that day only on my widowed brother, not on the whole country. I naively assumed our nation would deal with the events of 9/11 in a rational, responsible way, while 9/11 families would be allowed the space to recover privately. But as the Girl Scout meeting had portended, neither wish would come true.
Within a year, it was clear that the so-called “war on terror” was quickly morphing into a second U.S. war in the Middle East. I was sickened by the prospect. En route to another Girl Scout event I was horrified to hear the 10-year-old members of my Brownie troop discussing where their families planned to hide if Saddam Hussein dropped a bomb on their houses.
My community is in rural southeastern Nebraska, a place where the largest population center in the county, the county seat, is a town of 3,500 people! We are squarely in the middle of the country, as far from international significance as one could imagine. And yet, the fear was here. Sadly, that fear was as real to those children as it apparently was to their parents, thanks to those who made it so in the federal government and national media. I knew that something was going horribly wrong in my country.
One morning in early 2004 I woke up and realized that all the negative fallout from September 11th wasn’t going to end unless people did something to change things. And I knew that no matter how much I didn’t want it to, that meant me. I had to make it change. I had an obligation to act. I had to be an example for my children, lest they too become disturbed but complacent and disillusioned.
I stumbled across September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows on the Internet. I remember thinking that the group just “felt right,” and I was desperate to connect with people whose ability to reason had not been usurped by ginned-up nationalized hysteria. I wanted to speak out to stop the madness, and so I signed up for their speaker’s bureau.
I responded to a Peaceful Tomorrows request to speak at a Sept 11th 2004 march and rally for peace in Texas. I flew alone to Austin on the strength of a promise from a stranger in an email, marched four miles in the rain and delivered an impassioned speech that included the statement “pre-emptive war IS terrorism” on the steps of the capitol of the U.S. president’s home state.
It doesn’t sound very remarkable now, and it wouldn’t have been remarkable before 2001, but in that first term of the Bush years, giving that speech was a very, very audacious thing to do. I recall thinking that some day my husband and I would tell our children about this dark and shameful period in American history, when people were arrested for wearing anti-party of power t-shirts, and those who spoke out against the government were herded into free speech zones. I felt I owed it to my children to fight.
Our family met other Peaceful Tomorrows members at an anti-war march in Washington, D.C. in Septembe,r 2004. Weeks later I joined Peaceful Tomorrows members Terry Rockefeller, Adele Welty, Colleen Kelly and Talat Hamdani to lobby congress for an end to the war, and in favor of changes to the misnamed USA Patriot Act. Working side by side these strong and intelligent women cemented my commitment to Peaceful Tomorrows.
George W. Bush’s re-election sent many people across the country into depression, myself included. I told my friends I had a bad case of what I called “red state blues.” I turned the flag on our flagpole upside down to indicate that the our national ship was in serious trouble. Concerned citizens of the nearby small town of 600 began discussing what to do about this apparent act of anti-patriotism, eventually sending out the town’s single policeman to discuss it with me.
Our family assisted the American Friends Service Committee in setting up an Eyes Wide Open Exhibit in Washington, D.C. Later I represented Peaceful Tomorrows as a co-sponsor of the first Eyes Wide Open Exhibit ever in Omaha, Nebraska. I began tabling for Peaceful Tomorrows at every peace event I could find.
My husband and I took our daughters out of school to protest the 2005 inauguration in person, and it was written up in the local paper. I put bumper stickers on my car – something I had never done in my life – and signs in our yard. They read “War is NOT pro-life,” “Islam is not the Enemy” and “Support our Troops, Bring them Home”.
I also began receiving hate mail at my home and on my car. And the next time I tried to open a local bank account, I was rejected because my name matched that of a “person of interest” by the federal government.
Disconcerting as it was, it meant I was having an effect..
I spoke out again for peace and humanity in Texas on behalf of Peaceful Tomorrows on September 11th 2005, this time as a guest of the San Antonio Peace Center. Again, the experience revitalized and sustained me while I lived in the heart of an America I no longer recognized.
I have enjoyed many personal benefits from this work. For one thing, I have learned more about domestic and foreign cultures, history, religion, science, geography and government than I ever thought I cared to know, all because of the effect of Sept 11th. This has improved my understanding of world events, my conversational skills, and even my ability to help my children with their homework.
My children have been affected in other positive ways, too. I am happy to observe that my daughters clearly know more about American government and world events than all their classmates combined. They would not have gotten this knowledge had they not been exposed to many dinner table discussions, meetings, marches and family trips. The Bill of Rights hangs over our breakfast table, and they are expected to know every article.
As one of my many new-found friends in the peace movement says, “We are inspired to become greater than we ever imagined ourselves to be. We are part of a humanity graduating from an old era and old ways that would certainly have destroyed the world. We are in the process of lifting the world to a grand and awesome new era. Even those who are tied to their wealth and fear are a part of the evolution of all of us.” So I continue to try to inspire others to act as well.
My rural Midwestern community is peopled primarily by descendants of whites-only cultures from eastern Europe. People of color here are rare, and sadly, not especially welcomed. As a result, local children are growing up with little experience and less understanding of what it means to be a world citizen today.
So, five years ago I started a three-day tolerance education workshop that I provide to the social studies class of the local middle school. We discuss how wrong it is to judge people by their religion or race. At the end of the class I show a photo of fellow Peaceful Tomorrows member Talat Hamdani’s son Salman, and ask the students who they think he is. Almost all students, seeing the dark-skinned Middle Eastern face, say he’s a 9/11 terrorist. When I reveal to them that he was a U.S. citizen and New York City police cadet killed in the act of saving 9/11 victims, we all realize that the U.S. has a long way to go toward practicing the lessons we think we already know.
In 2009 I was asked to join the Peaceful Tomorrows Steering Committee, and by the end of that year I was Project Director. I accepted the position on the condition that it last no more than six months, and on February 2010 I passed the baton to Anne Mulderry, our current Director.
In July 2010 I delivered a presentation on behalf of Peaceful Tomorrows along with fellow Steering Committee member Robyn Bernstein to an audience at Jogakuin College in Osaka, Japan. Again, the experience of being steeped in a culture that honors and reveres peace invigorated me. During that visit to Japan we also toured the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and met two elderly Hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivors. These men’s dedication of the remaining years of their life to working toward world peace inspired me at the deepest level.
Each action I take renews my commitment to the cause of peace, and I hope to continue to find meaningful ways to contribute to the goals of the Peaceful Tomorrows organization. It is important to me to bring peace messages to every societal level – locally, nationally and internationally. It is a legacy I hope to leave not only on behalf of my sister-in-law and the child she never had, but to my own children and to the millions of children who will be, but whom none of us will ever meet.