New York high-school teacher Bruce Wallace, whose nephew died while trying to rescue survivors of the attacks, knows about those emotions. But he said he realized he had to go beyond them. With a group called September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, (www.peacefultomorrows.org), that’s what he is working to do.
"We turned our grief and anger into action for peace, instead of revenge, instead of going and bombing somebody," Wallace explained during a weekend visit to Athens. He and other group members were scheduled to speak at Ohio University Saturday.
Wallace, who teaches earth science at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, has set up an e-mail correspondence program between some of his students and some high-school students in Baghdad.
In the wake of 9-11 and then the U.S. war on Afghanistan, he said, he wanted somehow to convey to his students the reality of U.S. military action around the globe. He recalled deciding to screen for his class a film documentary about the mistaken bombing of a village in Afghanistan.
"It was a crosshairs error. Shit happens," he said wryly. "And people were cluster-bombed." The documentary, he said, is "55 minutes of hard-to-take film." While trying to come up with some kind of lesson plan to accompany it, he mentioned the project to his two adult sons.
"They both had the same reaction — ‘Dad, this sounds like a class. Why don’t you find out what the kids want to know?’" he recalled.
Wallace took that suggestion, and asked his students — many of whom live in a poverty-stricken, violent Brooklyn neighborhood — what they would like to ask someone in Afghanistan. The responses, he said turned out to be pretty straightforward questions, such as "Do you hear gunshots in your neighborhood? I hear gunshots in my neighborhood."
After failing to make the necessary Internet connection to Kabul, Wallace decided to try for Iraq, which by then was experiencing a U.S.-led war of its own. He put out the call via e-mail, and finally managed, through multiple degrees of separation, to find someone who knew a cab driver in Baghdad who could put him in touch with an Iraqi schoolteacher. His students first began corresponding with Iraqi students in March 2003.
"There was war going on, bullets, bombs — and these e-mails were getting through," he marveled. "Students were asking, ‘What’s your school like? What’s your life like? How do you live with the bombs?’" There was even some sharing of fans’ notes on pop stars like NSync and Jay Z.
The insights gained by the students involved in the project have changed their perceptions of the news from Iraq, he said. "For our kids, it was basically that these were real people," he said. "They weren’t faceless Iraqis dying in a war."
Since the project was started, he added, "the students understand a little more about the realities of what our actions bring… ‘Civilian casualties’
and ‘collateral damage’ which are so abstract, now have a reality to these children."
Of course, some people might call this lending comfort to the enemy, and a subversive activity — which it undoubtedly is. Wallace acknowledged that not all parents of his students gave permission for them to participate, and not everyone at his school sees his work as admirable.
"I’ve been called a traitor by people in my school for corresponding with the enemy," he said, adding that a colleague with some knowledge of the law has suggested that under the USA PATRIOT Act, it’s conceivable he could be criminally charged for his actions.
"I do think about it from time to time," he admitted. "They could attempt to prosecute me. They could take me away, hold me without counsel." However, he insisted, the students his class is writing to "are not our enemy."
Overall, Wallace said, the Sept. 11 families group wants to be "a voice for victims of political violence," whether it happens in New York City, Iraq, Northern Ireland or Colombia. And while local peace activists in places like Athens, Ohio may feel weak and isolated, he said, his travels with the group have suggested to him that there’s a great hunger for peace at a grassroots level around the planet.
"I bet I’m going to find Athens, Ohios all over America," he predicted.