by David Potorti
It’s shaped up to be quite a Memorial Week–bookended with Monday’s holiday and Thursday’s traditional commemoration, which also happens to be the closing ceremony for World Trade Center recovery efforts. And there’s been a whole lot of witnessing going on.
In France, President Bush visited the D-Day graves at Omaha Beach, equating their occupants with those who, today, “defend our freedoms against people who can’t stand freedom.”
In New York, a chaplain blessed the military for protecting America from “all those who threaten Lady Liberty’s torch of eternal vigilance and hope”–while those wishing to visit Lady Liberty’s statue had their mugs recorded by surveillance cameras, analyzed by facial recognition technology, and cataloged in databases unknown.
And in my North Carolina neighborhood, there was a veteran with medals on his chest standing outside of a busy shopping mall, holding a sign reading, “Did thousands die so you could have a sale?”
While today it’s the sales job that seems to come before the thousands dying, I don’t doubt his sincerity. He was bearing witness. And I’ve come to believe that, stripped of all else, our testimony can be the only thing we have left to give.
A week after my parents lost their oldest son–my brother, Jim–at the World Trade Center on September 11, we were gathered on the front porch of our family home when a car drove up. A man, whom we had never met, had apparently read about our loss in the local paper. He mounted our steps with a crisply folded American flag. “Are you the mother?” he inquired, handing it over. Mom asked him who he was; he replied, “that’s not important,” and he left. The flag was his witness, the only thing he had to give us. We displayed it at my brother’s memorial service.
This spring, my dad, a World War II veteran, was on the porch again, but this time with a broom. Someone had thrown a rock through his living room window, and he was sweeping up the glass. It was nothing personal; the rock-throwing was one of 28 incidents of vandalism in my parents’ neighborhood last month. The suspects were surmised to be kids–unsupervised, jobless, missing the service of one or both parents.
The thrown rock, to my mind, was also a form of witness: a crude communication, a cry for recognition, an expression of anger. Curiously, my folks have kept it on their windowsill–as evidence, perhaps, or to simply ponder how it came to wind up in their living room. But I consider it, and its counterparts thrown through other windows in other homes–to be messages requiring answers. Rocks, after all, get thrown for a reason.
As a member of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows–a group of family members of 9-11 victims seeking alternatives to war–I speak publicly about the loss of my brother. My witness of that day and the days that have followed are the only thing I have to share. Other members of our group bear witness to their winter visit to Afghanistan, where they learned firsthand the results of the U.S.-led bombing on its civilian population.
“I’m sorry for the September 11 situation in your beautiful country,” reads a card they brought back from Hangama Omer, a teenage girl living in Kabul. “As you might know, the same situations have happened repeatedly in our country for the past 20 years.” She goes on: “Accept our greetings. Please do not forget us.”
Others hear their faith calling and asking not to be forgotten. One religious assembly in my town, faced with the challenge of how people of faith are compelled to react to current events, have taken their testimony to the streets. They have declared themselves a “Just Peace Church,” publishing a resolution and covenant stating, among other things, “Whereas we aspire to a prophetically critical witness in our community, in the face of our own uncertainty…we resolve to strive to bear witness to God’s liberating, peacemaking, and justice-doing presence in the world…”
Some challenge the witness of others. “You claim Christ but act like Caesar,” observes Reverend Rich Lang, Trinity United Methodist Church in Seattle, of President Bush, who stated that Jesus Christ was his favorite philosopher. “If God has chosen you for this hour then, in Christ’s name, serve the values and vision of Jesus: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, release the prisoners, cancel the debt, forgive your enemies, practice Jubilee. Then, through you, this nation and all nations will be blessed.”
This spring, yet another group of witness-bearers, under the banner of Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace, brought their testimony to America. Yitzhak Frankenthal, an Israeli orthodox Jew, founded the Parents’ Circle–bereaved parents who have lost their children to terrorism– after his 19-year-old son, Arik, was kidnapped and killed by Hamas in 1995. Reaching out to both Jewish and Arab parents who had lost loved ones in the conflict, he found countless like-minded spirits.
They came to New York with 1,050 coffins, draped with Israeli and Palestinian flags, and laid them in front of the United Nations–bearing witness to their losses, and demonstrating that what politicians apparently cannot do, they have already done: they have found reconciliation, and chosen to spare others the pain they have already suffered. They demonstrated by their example that the end to violence is not a distant goal, but is instead a decision we make, one that lies within the power of every one of us.
A few weeks later, Peaceful Tomorrows hosted a visit from a Japanese delegation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors. They call themselves the Hiroshima Alliance for Nuclear Weapons Abolition (HANWA–their Nagasaki counterparts are called NANWA) and their visit was to “ring alarm over the possible use of nuclear weapons.” These were people who had lived through the August, 1945 attacks on their cities, and had dedicated themselves–now in their sixties and seventies–to bearing witness to their experiences.
Hidenori Yamaoka recalled being orphaned by the bombing, and having to move to the already-crowded home of family friends who had children of their own. The children bullied him and resented his presence. This painful childhood situation was the prism through which he remembered the bombing, and was the cause of his hatred of the United States for thirty years.
Others spoke of the horror of being one of the few living people in a sea of corpses. A woman’s sister survived the bombing, but her wounds were so painful that she committed suicide days later. Another described eating grass to survive, and recalled her happiness at finding an abundance of lucky four-leaf clovers. She learned later that their presence was a mutation caused by the radiation.
They repeat their deeply personal testimonies regularly, but report that even young people in Japan are becoming “bored with peace.” Inculcated with the need to “never forget,” reminded at every turn that Japan’s was the only civilian population–as of this writing–to suffer nuclear attacks, many are paying less and less attention to these elder statesmen and women. Yet they insist on continuing to bear their important witness.
This spring, Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Landfill–a cruelly appropriate destination for the tons of World Trade Center debris–served up a testimony of its own: a DNA match on a bit of human remains. The remains were my brother: a small shard of bone, the size of a thumbnail, one of 1,000 items of human remains identified, at the time, out of 19,000. The remains reside in Peace Park, a makeshift white tent covering two rows of refrigerated trailers outside of the New York Medical Examiner’s office. There is a floor stand of flowers in front of each one for the benefit of family members who come to bear witness.
On the wall hangs an enormous American flag, destined for the Smithsonian, quilted out of some 3,000 smaller flags, each bearing the handwritten name of a September 11 victim. Still other small flags acknowledge the 115 different nationalities of people lost in the Twin Towers. Each flag bears witness, as does each item of human remains, as do the remains from all the wars and all the disappearances of our recent history: from George Bush’s seaside perch at Normandy, to the killing fields of southeast Asia, to the mass graves of Panama and El Salvador, to the wreckage at Jenin. These remains bear witness, testimony that comes hurling at us like the rock that came through my parents’ window, like the card that came to us from Afghanistan, like the coffins borne from the Mideast. Their testimonies remain, and speak to us about the futility of terrorism and war.
David Potorti works with Peaceful Tomorrows, an advocacy organization founded by family members of September Eleventh victims.