[Editor’s Note: When my father first set up shop in Second Life, I knew it was only a matter of time before he would find a way to get his peace work going there. Recently, my dad sent me a press release, asking whether the Herald wouldn’t be interested in reporting on his work. I asked Fiend Ludwig to not only take on the job of doing me this favor (we’re an Always Fairly Unbalanced tabloid, remember, and we’ll write about our dads if we damn well please), but to bring his Fiendish touch to the story as well. WARNING: This story contains one graphic image of a dead body. Safe for work, but not for the weak of constitution.
There has been so much furor lately over the minutiae of Second Life — CopyBot! CopyBot! — and endless parsing of how real-world interests interact or conflict with more native metaversal establishments and institutions — First! First! — that it seems to me that the effectiveness of SL as a communications medium for efforts other than the commercial is being largely overlooked these days. But not by everyone. Bruce Wallace, aka PT Witte in SL, runs the Peace and Justice Center on Better World Island. It is home to discussions and presentations which speak to visitors about his efforts with the 121 Contact project and the September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, both of which advocate non-violent options and actions in the pursuit of justice.
Started in early 2004 as the result of a Human Rights Day workshop at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, New York, 121 Contact "connects high school students and teachers in the U.S. with their peers in Iraq. The goal is simple: let children get to know each other and it will be less likely for them to war upon each other."
For this fifth installment of First Person : Second Life, Witte suggested I start by reading some of the email 121 Contact receives from Baghdad:
Baghdad, November 14, 2006
Dear ones…you can not imagine what kind of life here in Iraq! The situation is getting harder each day. My neighborhood had been under attack since my last phone call with Bruce. Dead bodies of civilian people are accumulated and scattered everywhere…wherever you go you see corpses.
My [head]mistress’ brother-in-law was killed, a teacher in my school lost her brother in the latest explosion, another teacher lost his wife on the day of Saddam’s verdict because of the random shooting, while another one lost his relatives who were kidnapped during a funeral ceremony!
My neighborhood on the other hand still witnesses serious combats because of [US troop] existence in the neighborhood, yesterday 2 land mines were exploded in front of our house and they (USA troops) forced us to stay at our houses for about 6 hours. Late at night they broke into houses and arrested many young men…above all let me tell you this …we have had no electricity, no water, no phone service for about 6 days…can you imagine your life with out these 3 important things?
Now let me describe what happened to me this morning, a man I see every day standing next to me waiting for the bus going to his work…was shot dead by a sniper. I stood their watching him die with no idea what to do or where to go…I couldn’t even shout for help…everybody around me disappeared. I went back home totally broken down…wondering am I alive!!?
I sent this message from a net cafe out of my neighborhood.
Nesreen "was one of the first Baghdad teachers brave enough to have her students email my students, says Witte. [Author’s note: the text of the message from Nesreen, above, has been lightly edited for clarity. Here is the original message in context.]
Wallace’s teaching career began in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn in the 1960s. He then took a Masters Degree in Computer Science at the State University of New York at Albany, after which he worked as an independent computer management consultant for over twenty years. "I specialized in projects that were in trouble – over budget, over time, under managed. [I] lost my clientele after 9/11."
Witte recounts, "It’s a long tale — of living a few blocks away from ground zero; of witnessing the second plane and the collapse and the panic and the horror; of only learning late in the day that [nephew] Mitch had gone to help and was missing; of many weeks of serving food to the workers; of the patient waiting with my brother for news of his son; of the slow movement from pain and anger to compassion and works for peace." Wallace’s nephew, Mitchell Wallace, a New York Supreme Court officer and twice-decorated Emergency Medical Technician, was killed while rescuing the injured from the World Trade Center.
"It was then that I went back to teaching." Wallace taught Earth Science at John Dewey High School for several years, but retired in early 2006: "I had spent much of the school year on leave taking care of my wife, who had cancer. Marilyn passed away in July and when I thought about going back to the classroom the answer was clear. I decided to retire and spend more time in peace work."
Wallace’s son, Mark — aka Walker Spaight, the Second Life Herald’s Publisher and Editor, and chief blogger at 3pointD.com — introduced him to Second Life. "My foray into SL is an experiment," Witte says. "I want to see if my time there can be as valuable as my real life efforts." And although he hopes that someday he will be able to interact with his Baghdad friends in SL directly, currently "the infrastructure is so bad that we can hardly get email back and forth. Most students are not even going to school now and the trip to the Internet cafe is not taken lightly. One of our writers was killed on the school bus, another kidnapped. Teachers have been intimidated into dropping out of the project. Another was almost killed last week when a stray shot missed her head by inches. Not even the phone connections are reliable these days."
"My work is the delivery of awareness of the cost that civilians pay in the midst of political violence. It is a truth most keep deep in denial. I hope to awaken compassion," says Witte. "I have a strong belief that peace, world peace, is attainable, and that the power to make this happen is in the hands of ordinary people, not governments. When all the peace-loving people of the world are united, communicated, gathered together, then we far outnumber those who choose violence, and we will prevail."
I hope we will soon have another Second Life first to report: the first innocent life saved.