On Sept. 11, 2001, Terry Greene’s older brother Donald was on United Flight 93 that crashed into a Pennsylvania pasture after terrorists hijacked the cockpit. Terry Rockefeller’s sister Laura was an actor and singer who happened to be in the North Tower at Windows on the World that morning, helping run a seminar. Loretta Filipov’s husband, Alexander, an electrical engineer, was flying on business to California on American Airlines Flight 11, the first to crash into the World Trade Center. On the same flight was Wright Salisbury’s son-in-law, Ted Hennessy, 35, of Belmont, who with his wife, Melanie, had two young children.
For years, these family members from Massachusetts — along with 15 others from the Commonwealth — have channeled their grief into activism through a group called September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.
Today they are cosponsoring a peace assembly and parade in Groton that will host some first responders at ground zero (see box). Their activism has a new focus: fighting to have those responsible for the attacks tried in civilian, not military, courts.
This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee considered the question of whether self-avowed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed should be tried in federal court or a military tribunal. After saying months ago that Mohammed would be tried in a New York courtroom, Attorney General Eric Holder backtracked when the White House announced that President Obama — and not the Justice Department — would ultimately make that decision. Now, outraged members of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows are urging the president to stick with the commitment to a federal court trial.
It’s a question that has divided Americans, though support seems to be turning toward military tribunals. In February, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 55 percent of Americans favored tribunals, compared with 48 percent in November.
“We have watched for years as our loved ones have become the tools of politicians to gain support for their own agendas,’’ the September Eleventh Families wrote in a recent letter to President Obama. “We want you to know that we consider buckling to political pressure to be the wrong thing to do.’’
To them, American values such as civil liberties and human rights honor their loved ones’ memories, while violence simply begets more violence. As Terry Greene puts it: “We want to build bridges rather than bomb them.’’
In November 2001, during a peace march from the Pentagon to ground zero, some of the relatives of those killed in the attacks happened to meet. Afterward, they got together in a bar in Manhattan and wrote out goals on a napkin.
On Valentine’s Day 2002, September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows was born. Since then, they’ve become accidental experts in terrorism, human rights, and the Constitution. One of their first acts was to write President Bush asking him “to think as kindly about the people in Afghanistan who had lost their loved ones [in US bombings] as others around the world were thinking of us,’’ says Rockefeller, 59, of Arlington, a documentary producer.
The group, which has about 220 members in the United States and six other countries — foreigners were killed 9/11 — opposed the bombings in Afghanistan, the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretapping under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the invasion of Iraq. They were appalled at the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and the secret renditions of prisoners, and they want the detainment facility at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba closed. During the Democratic National Convention of 2004, some of them marched from the Boston Convention Center to the Republican National Convention in New York to show that their protests were bipartisan.
Members have met with their Afghan counterparts who lost loved ones in coalition bombings. They traveled to Iraq both before and after the invasion to meet with civilians. They’ve met with victims of violence across the globe, including the Middle East, Bali, Madrid, Oklahoma City, Mumbai, South Africa, Bosnia, and Rwanda. In 2003, the group was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
“You can’t say ‘liberty and justice for all’ and mean it just as a slogan,’’ says Greene, 50, an environmental health specialist who lives in Cambridge. “It’s a victory for the terrorists if we give up our system of justice for the more primitive eye-for-an-eye.’’
Loretta Filipov joined in November 2002. “I was saying things that people around me were uncomfortable with,’’ says Filipov, 73, a retired nurse who lives in Concord. (Her son, David, is a Globe staff writer who is not affiliated with Peaceful Tomorrows). When someone would tell her, Don’t worry, we’ll go get them, Filipov would reply, But who are you going to get? The 19 [hijackers] were already dead. [Her husband] Al cared about issues of peace and justice, and I knew that no other innocent human beings should suffer what I was suffering.’’
Some might call the group the liberal wing of the 9/11 families and that wouldn’t be far off. But they insist they are nonpartisan and they do come from different states, backgrounds, and politics. Wright Salisbury is a Republican and was chairman of the party committee in the New York town where he and his wife resided before moving, after 9/11, to Massachusetts to be near their widowed daughter and grandchildren.
He became “radicalized,’’ as he puts it, when President Bush stood at ground zero speaking of revenge. “I thought, how dare you stand on my son-in-law’s ashes and make political capital out of this?’’ says Salisbury, 76, a retired architect who lives in Lexington. “When a country is challenged, it opens the door for demagogues and military to take over, and that’s what happened here.’’
Two days after the attacks, in the lead-up to the Afghanistan bombings, his daughter had sent an e-mail to President Bush and the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee saying that her husband was “a happy, gentle, loving man, and it would break his heart to think that more innocent people might be killed on his account. Acts of vengeance do not honor his memory.’’
Rockefeller has long been a liberal activist, working with Amnesty International. A board member of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, which works to abolish the death penalty, she testified for the defense in the sentencing phase of the so-called 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui, who received a life sentence.
She knows some would question her actions. “I can’t stand the notion that I love my sister any less or that I’m not a loyal American because I don’t want these people killed instantly,’’ she says. “If we stand by our Constitution, we have the best chance of producing verdicts the world will respect.’’
But Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles was the pilot of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, is cofounder of 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America and a vocal supporter of military tribunals. “These are unlawful enemy combatants,’’ says Burlingame, who lives in New York. “They targeted civilians and operated outside the laws of warfare. That to me means they should be put in military tribunals as war criminals. They are not deserving of constitutional protections.’’
Burlingame is also a board member, along with William Kristol and Liz Cheney, of Keep America Safe, a national security policy group. Her brother, a United States Naval Academy graduate and reservist fighter pilot, would approve of military tribunals, she believes. “The idea that the men who killed his passengers and crew would get constitutional rights — to me, my brother would have been absolutely outraged by that.’’
Those in Peaceful Tomorrows say they remain respectful of other groups’ opinions. But they also remain firmly against military trials, in part because they see the defendants not as warriors representing a foreign country but as violent criminals.
“We know how civilian trials will be conducted, we know what the rules of jurisprudence are — they are longstanding,’’ says Rockefeller. “The rules for the tribunals have had to be twice amended — it is not clear how many times that might occur again.’’ And because military tribunals have been held at Guantánamo, few family members have gotten to attend, she adds.
If, as rumored, Obama strikes a compromise with Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to approve military trials in exchange for Republican support to close Guantánamo, the members of Peaceful Tomorrows will protest. “If it’s in the works, it’s profoundly disturbing,’’ says Rockefeller. “We don’t want to trade that [Guantánamo closing] for compromising our system of justice.’’