This speech was delivered by David Potorti in Seoul during Peaceful Tomorrows’ first visit to South Korea, November 30, 2003 in conjunction with People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy.
My Dear Friends,
I am deeply honored by your invitation to participate in this important gathering at this essential time. This is my first visit to South Korea, and I am grateful for your generosity and hospitality. But I must tell you that most Americans have little knowledge of your history, your concerns, and the essential role your decisions will play in our planet’s future. I am happy to tell you about my work, but I am also happy to learn from you, and to return to my country with a better understanding of your situation.
I come here as a man who lost his oldest brother in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. I come here as an American citizen who is deeply troubled by his government’s response, both domestically and internationally, to the events of that terrible day. And I come here as one of the founders of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group of parents, children, brothers and sisters of 9/11 victims who decided to turn their grief into action for peace.
It was during this week two years ago—the last week of November, 2001—that I and the people who created our group met each other for the first time. We took part in a “Walk for Healing and Peace” from Washington, DC to New York City. It was a symbolic act to show the world that we rejected the wholesale bombing of Afghanistan as a way of apprehending the 9/11 terrorists or reducing the likelihood of future terrorism. Even though we were so closely affected by the deaths of our loved ones, we recognized that those deaths occurred in a larger context. They occurred in the context of a world where innocent people suffer and die every day. A world where powerful forces commit terror with reckless indifference to human life, every day. A world in which every life is precious, and where every death deserves to be remembered and mourned, every day.
We wanted to world to know that the 21st century had arrived bearing a powerful message: Our bombs could not protect us any longer. Our armies could not protect us any longer. Our walls could not protect us any longer. Therefore, we had to recognize our mutual humanity. We had to find a way to coexist. We had to learn how to live together, or we would die together. Americans, in particular, could no longer pretend to live on their own planet, separate from the realities of others. And we could no longer pretend that we, the most powerful nation on earth, were an innocent nation, an unaccountable nation, which never made a mistake and never willfully did wrong.
Many Americans were not ready to hear our views. Fear is a powerful emotion, and it was fear that drove many of my fellow citizens to neglect their responsibilities to each other and to the rest of the world. Fearful, with little knowledge of history, and poorly informed by the media, they thought that the civilian deaths on September 11th were exceptional, and had never occurred before. And because they considered the attacks of that day to be exceptional, they gave themselves permission to respond in exceptional ways. They supported the bombing of Afghanistan. They supported restrictions on civil liberties and the undermining of our Constitutional protections. They supported the illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq, a country which had no connection to September 11th. And they developed a dangerous sense of nationalism, which transformed pride in their identity into a need to dominate the world and remake it in their own likeness.
Two years later, what have we learned from the response of the Bush administration to September 11th? One answer is found in the words of editor and humanitarian Norman Cousins, a man who brought attention to the plight of the atomic bomb survivors in Japan. He said that “Wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences.” And by his measure, there has been little wisdom evident in our response.
We have used the violence of the terrorist attacks as an excuse to inflict more violence, and as a consequence, violence against us has increased. We have used the deaths of our loved ones as an excuse to cause the deaths of other peoples’ loved ones, and as a consequence, deaths of Americans have increased. We have used the instability and insecurity generated by September 11th to breed instability and insecurity around the world, and as a consequence, our own country is today less united and less respected. And sadly, we have learned that the fear created by the September 11th attacks has been a powerful tool for achieving political ends unrelated to the so-called war on terrorism.
But we have learned something else as well: that human beings have more power than they realize. Their words have power. Their ideas have power. Their personal stories have power. We discovered that the most effective response to the inhumanity of terrorism and war was to become more human. And we learned that by making ourselves vunerable, by reaching out to others, we could become stronger.
In was in this spirit that I began to speak out, two years ago. I thought of the words of my mother, now 77 years old, who bent over in pain when learning of her son’s death and called his name, over and over: Jim, Jim, Jim. Then she said, “I don’t want anyone else to have to feel the pain I’m feeling now.” In her grief, the worst grief that any parent can experience, she moved from a personal response to a collective response. Not just for her, but for all mothers. Not just for her son, but for all children.
It was a powerful statement. And it was a sentiment that drove me to write essays in my local newspaper and to do commentaries on the radio. In one of my essays, I quoted the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I asked the people of my country to examine our own part in the world’s injustice, and to reflect on how we could end the cycle of violence. Like my mother, I was asking our country for a different response, a response that was rooted in a sense of our collective humanity and our desire for genuine security and peace. And because I spoke out about my feelings, I came to know others who shared them.
I met Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez, who also lost their son at the World Trade Center. Only two days after the attacks, they wrote a statement called, “Not in Our Son’s Name.” It read, “Our son died a victim of an inhuman ideology. Our actions should not serve the same purpose. Let us grieve. Let us reflect and pray. Let us think about a rational response that brings real peace and justice to our world. But let us not as a nation add to the inhumanity of our times.” Could you make such a statement only days after your child’s murder?
I think of Rita Lasar, who lost her brother in the World Trade Center when he chose to stay behind with a friend in a wheelchair. She said, “It is in my brother’s name and mine that I pray that we, this country that has been so deeply hurt, not do something that will unleash forces we will not have the power to call back.” Two years later, we see the powerful forces that we have unleashed. And we recognize the wisdom of Rita Lasar, who did not let fear or anger blind her to reality.
To us, the reality of September 11th was that killing is, at all times and in all places, wrong. Whether an innocent worker at the World Trade Center, an innocent child in Afghanistan, or an innocent father in Iraq, whether by the terrorism of the hijackers or the terrorism of war, killing is always wrong. It is always a tragedy. And the deaths caused by terrorism and war always have long-lasting effects that stretch across generations.
My brother’s death gave me new insight into family friends I had grown up with. Their names were Jake and Janette. They were Jews who owned the corner store, Jake’s Red & White, where we would buy candy when we were children. Jake and Janette had survived the Auschwitz concentration camp in Germany in World War II. They are retired now, in their 80’s, and my parents would see them around town and at the supermarket.
Janette would tell my mother, “I know what terrorism is.” She told of being in Auschwitz, and one day being lined up to go to her death in the gas chamber. Her entire family was there, her mother, father, and siblings, standing in line. As a girl, Janette had blond hair. And because she had blond hair, she was pulled out of the line at the last minute on the belief that she might not be a Jew. Suddenly, she found herself apart from the line, watching her entire family go to their deaths in the gas chamber. She was the only one to survive. More than fifty years later, she says she sees that image in her mind every day of her life. And every day of her life, she wonders why she lived and they died. War has long-lasting effects that stretch across generations. So she and my mother have made this new connection, and have this new understanding, born of their mutual grief.
My father was a Fourth Division U.S. Marine in World War II. He was stationed in the South Pacific, and captured islands including Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima. He lost
75 percent of his company in some of the harshest battles of the war, and his history may be connected to the history of people in this room. In fact, he was preparing for a land invasion of Japan at the time that the atomic bombs were used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Today, he is in his late 80’s, and he rarely talks about the war. He’ll tell me stories of his training, of his travels, but never of the war itself. But one day, he was reading a magazine called “Leatherneck.” It is a magazine for Fourth Division Marines, and a widow had written a letter asking for information about her husband. He had died in the war many years ago, and since many veterans of the war were growing older and dying themselves, she was hoping for whatever information they might share about her husband.
I was surprised to hear that my father wrote back to her. My father never knew her husband, never served directly with him, never saw his face. But her husband’s body was the first dead body that my father had ever seen. He read the man’s name on the back of his jacket, where it was printed in large letters. And more than 50 years later, he still remembers that man’s name. This is the legacy of war: nightmares that stretch across generations. And I wondered what other nightmares my father has been carrying inside of him.
I think about this when we talk about Afghanistan, and now Iraq. What nightmares are we creating for the ordinary people in those countries today, and what will they carry with them for 50 years? What will happen to the children there in ten years, or twenty years, when they grow up? And what destiny will they share with my own children?
I think about our military, who are also victims of terrorism and war. I think about Timothy McVeigh, a Gulf War veteran who did the Oklahoma City Bombing. I think about John Mohammed, the Gulf War veteran who was responsible for a series of sniper attacks in the Maryland area. I think about four Special Forces members, stationed in Afghanistan, who came home to North Carolina where I live, and all four of them murdered their wives.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk, says: “When we train young people every day to kill, the damage is deep. They have known anger, they bear scars for many years. These kinds of wounds last for a long time and are transmitted to future generations. We cannot imagine the long term effects of watering so many seeds of war.”
One of those effects is the breaking of important links with our past. At the time of my own brother’s death, what I thought about most was food. In my family, food is how we remember each other. We have a saying, “the only time families get together is for births, weddings, and funerals.” Because we are Italian, we also eat meals on all of those occasions. We celebrate birthdays with meals. We celebrate weddings with meals. We share food and drink when someone dies.
So at the time of my brother’s death, I thought about food. There was a traditional Christmas dinner which we make. It is a Catholic tradition of serving fish, which symbolizes Christ. We would make pasta with clam sauce, shrimp cocktail, fried oysters, and dried codfish. We would eat this meal on bowls made from the wood of chestnut trees grown in the town where my grandfather was born in Italy. We would drink white wine. It was a yearly tradition for the family. After my brother died, I remember how that tradition was diminished. There was one less person to share our memories and to connect with our grandparents.
I have come to realize that when you kill someone, you don’t just kill a person. You kill their history. You kill their traditions and their connections with their families—their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. You kill their connection with the past, but also with the future. My young children will never know my brother. My parents will die, knowing that their son will not carry on their traditions. In this regard, all deaths cut our connections with the past, the present, and the future. All deaths are tragedies, which extend across many generations. And it is up to us, the living, to re-make those connections. To form new families.
Since September 11th, we have heard from people all over the United States, and all over the world, who have demonstrated that we are part of a new family. Like us, they have come to recognize that the interests of humanity are bigger than their own self-interests. And like us, they have come to recognize that their own experience of pain and loss carries with it a responsibility to bear witness to others, and in doing so, to prevent similar losses in the future.
We were moved by the visit of the Hibakusha, who made real the terror of the atomic bombs dropped by our country onto Japan. In America today, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain historical abstractions, with no attention given to the human suffering they produced. Yet the Hibakusha perform the invaluable service of reminding us of the long-lasting effects of war. Like us, they bring a complex human aspect to what is often viewed as a simple, black-and-white vision of war. This is their valuable witness.
We have met Yitzhak Frankenthal, founder of Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace, whose oldest son was the victim of murder by Hamas terrorists. He says that he failed his son, because there was no peace between Israel and Palestine. And today, he has created The Parents Circle, which links Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost their children. Their projects have included a special telephone system which connects Israelis and Palestinians in dialogue, so the two sides can understand each other’s humanity. Together, the Israelis and Palestinians in his group have donated blood to hospitals under the slogan, “the same blood, the same pain, the same future.” And they have dramatized the losses of Israeli and Palestinian civilians by laying more than 1,000 coffins in front of the United Nations, each one symbolizing the death of an Israeli or Palestinian child. This is their valuable witness.
We have met Bud Welch, a member of a group called Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation. The group is comprised of family members of murder victims who oppose the death penalty for the killers. Bud’s daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. Afterwards, he says he was obsessed with anger, and he drank, smoked, and was hard on himself. But he remembers a day when that changed. He was watching a television show and saw an interview with the father of Timothy McVeigh, the man behind the Oklahoma City bombings. He saw the hurt in that father’s eyes and knew at that moment that he needed to meet this man and to reconcile with him. He met McVeigh’s father and sister, and told them that they would be linked forever by the tragedy of that day. And in doing so, he was released from his anger.
Indeed, we are all linked by tragedy. And Bud Welch, like the members of Peaceful Tomorrows and so many others, learned that we must acknowlege our connections in order to heal.
This year, on September 11th, 2003, I attended the ceremonies at Ground Zero in New York City along with thousands of other relatives of 9/11 victims. When I arrived there, I was given a small white ribbon to wear, signifying my membership in the sad fraternity of family members who had come to commemorate their losses that day. As I entered the special families area, I observed volunteers carrying large wicker baskets. One basket held bottles of water. Another basket held packages of Kleenex tissues. And the third basket held roses, each single stem bearing a beautiful flower of yellow, white, red, and every other color of the rainbow. Throughout the morning, children read the names of the family members who had been lost on that day. Later, we were allowed to walk down a ramp into the “pit” which contained the foundations of the two towers. But of all the things I saw that day, what I remember the most were those baskets.
The water symbolized the tears which were shed that day. The tissues symbolized the continuing need to comfort those who are still suffering. And the flowers symbolized rebirth and the beauty of life. Water was necessary for the roses to grow, just as the water of our tears is necessary for us to grow beyond our grief and remember the beauty of life.
The symbolism of the water continues to fill my mind. I thought of water as the origin of all life on earth. I think of the vast bodies of water, stretching thousands of miles, which separate the continents. I imagined those bodies of water, the great oceans, disappearing and draining away, leaving behind one planet in which all lands are connected. Imagine if we could walk from one continent to another, forgetting the false barriers and divisions of geography? We might then remember the words of American President John F. Kennedy, assassinated 40 years ago this week, who said, “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” And we would recognize that the things we have in common are much more numerous than the things that keep us apart.
It is good to know who your enemies are. But it is more important to know who your friends are. While we know that the terrorist threat is real, I believe that we can pursue better, smarter remedies, using the power of alliances and the rule of international law.
I believe that terrorism is not really the problem: terrorism is a symptom of the problem. The problem is militarism, imperialism, nationalism, materialism, the belief that the lives of some matter more than the lives of others. These are the problems and the misperceptions we must remedy, but we must first be willing to recognize them.
And we must be careful to preserve our freedom in whatever we do. So much of what we are told today is that we have no choices–we must respond with force. But to me, freedom is about having choices. In America, in Japan, in Korea, we must consider all of our options before choosing the last resort of war. And we must remember the lesson of September 11th: Our bombs can not protect us any longer. Our armies can not protect us any longer. Our walls can not protect us any longer. In the 21st century, in the era of weapons of mass destruction, we must recognize our mutual humanity. We must find a way to coexist. We must learn how to live together, or we will die together.
The American poet Maya Angelou says, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” I believe that each of us has the power to make a new history. Not in large, dramatic gestures, but in the way we live our lives. In the connections we continue to find in each other. This is where we will find a strength beyond military force. From our moral strength, our ethical strength, our spiritual strength, our legal strength, from our traditions and our connections with history, we will find a way to reassemble the world which has been so shattered by terrorism and war. This is the continuing mission of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. I thank you for this invitation, and I welcome all of you as fellow travelers in this important journey.