On Sept. 11, 2001, the most private loss imaginable became more public than any I’ve ever known: the death of my brother, Jim, at the World Trade Center.
Millions of people experienced the moment of my brother’s death, either as it was happening or later on videotape. And while all of us were horrified by the violence we witnessed that day, I also saw simple memories disappearing in those flames: weekends at Long Beach, where he lived for a decade; trips to the North Fork for wine tastings; bluefishing at night on party boats; holidays upstate with family; and, because we’re Italian, lots of meals.
In my words and actions, guided by my mom’s response to my brother’s death – “I don’t want any other mother to have to feel the pain I’m feeling right now” – I was motivated to honor my brother’s life. How I would do this was not immediately clear.
But as the months passed, something about the public response to Jim’s death did not sit well with me. While the humanity of the 9/11 victims – their names, faces and stories – became better and better known, our society seemed to care less and less about the traditions, histories and humanity of other innocent victims.
There were the undocumented workers at the Twin Towers. The Afghan citizens brutalized by the Taliban. The Muslims and Arabs stereotyped as terrorists. Anger and intolerance seemed to mask the pain and fear that we all felt so deeply. And a culture of silence prevented most of us from talking about those feelings.
I came to recognize that these same attitudes, on the part of others, were the very things that had led to my brother’s murder. At that point, what I wanted most was the opportunity to somehow prevent those attitudes from leading to the deaths of other people’s brothers, sisters, parents or children.
So I began to speak out, in local newspapers and essays on the Internet, empowered by the feeling that I had nothing left to lose. What possible backlash to my “going public” could be worse than the pain of losing my brother? Ironically, the fact that my private loss was also so public gave me the authority to get a hearing.
I found myself, for the first time, speaking against war at churches and mosques, high schools and colleges. And because I opened myself up – became vulnerable, if you will – I managed to grow stronger, as other families whose loved ones died on Sept. 11 contacted me to say they shared my views.
Their support made it possible for me to carry on, particularly when faced with the inevitable criticisms one hears when making talk radio and television appearances. I was compared by one radio caller to “traitor” John Walker because I had questioned the effectiveness of the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan. I was characterized as “misguided.” “naive” and “not living in the real world” – odd words to describe a 45-year-old father with mortgage payments who had just lost his brother in the worst terrorist attack in American history.
Still, under the pressure, I found myself questioning my motives, particularly when one radio producer cruelly accused me of taking advantage of my brother’s death to get my “moment in the spotlight.” Was I? Would my brother approve of what I was doing?
I think now that he would. The power I found in connecting with others led me to found September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows – now with 85 family members who lost relatives on Sept. 11 and 2,000 supporters. This association, dedicated to speaking out about alternatives to war, has allowed me to begin to replace the pain of the loss of my brother with a sense of genuine peace.
Members of our group have spoken in 28 states and eight foreign countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq. We’ve been contacted by survivors of the Hiroshima bombing, by parents who lost their children in Israel and the occupied territories, and by terrorism victims from Ireland to Bali. What we’ve learned is that people everywhere want the same things: security, a future for their children, a place to live and work and enough food to eat.
What died on Sept. 11, 2001 was not just my brother, but a tradition and history of American tolerance and commitment to peace. In wanting to honor my brother’s life, I have wanted to honor this as well. This is the best way I know to honor his memory.
David Potorti lives in North Carolina. He is the author of “September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows: Turning Our Grief into Action for Peace.”
Published on Sunday, September 14, 2003 by the Long Island, NY Newsday