September 2, 2011
Keeler: Fighting for Civilians Post-9/11
By Bob Keller – Newsday OpEd
Photo credit: Newsday/Newsday / Jim Peppler | A pair of shoes representing a civilian Iraqi casulaty, from the American Friends Service Committee‘s ” Eyes Wide Open” exhibit in Westbury on Sept. 8, 2007.
In the cruel weeks after 9/11, somehow they found each other — families who had lost loved ones in the attacks, but didn’t want other families in other nations to suffer the grief they were enduring.
The relatives they lost were civilian casualties, and their goal was to keep our nation’s response to 9/11 from causing more. As they moved toward setting up a permanent organization, they used an insight of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows,” King had said. So they took the name September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.
At first, they were seen as hopelessly naive. Now, as many Americans have grown weary of the endless combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, Peaceful Tomorrows looks not naive, but prescient.
On Thursday evening in Washington, one of the group’s founders, Colleen Kelly, will be honored as a Teacher of Peace by Pax Christi USA, the national Catholic peace movement. (Disclosure: I’m a member.) Kelly, 49, a nurse practitioner from the northern Bronx, has three teenagers who giggle about the award and seem less than awed. But she is pleased to accept the designation as a recognition of what Peaceful Tomorrows has tried to do for years.
That mission began for her with the death of her younger brother, Billy. He worked in the financial industry in midtown Manhattan. But on 9/11, he was at a breakfast meeting at Windows on the World, near the top of the North Tower. And suddenly, she had to figure out how to deal with his death.
The mindset she brought to that time of grief was shaped in part by working with homeless and troubled youth at Manhattan’s Covenant House in the 1980s. “That put me in a different realm of thinking about the poor and what justice is, and compassion,” she said. She’d also been influenced by friends in the Catholic Worker movement in New York and Philadelphia, which led her to help set up a free clinic in Harlem.
So it was natural enough for her to join a delegation to Iraq, to put a human face on its people, as the invasion approached in early 2003. Her Peaceful Tomorrows group was constantly watched by Iraqi government “minders,” but still got to meet real people.
“A couple things stood out,” Kelly said. “One was the generosity of spirit of the Iraqi people. In my head, I kept trying to flip it. If Iraq was threatening to invade the United States and a delegation of Iraqis came to visit, I’m not sure how welcoming I would have been.”
That visit made a huge difference for her when the invasion began. “The day we started bombing, it made it all the more awful, because you were wondering about the safety of the people you met.”
In the years since, Kelly has added study to experience, pursuing a degree in international relations. “I wanted to know in my brain what I felt in my heart,” she said. Her conclusions? “There is absolutely zero legitimacy to the United States involvement in Iraq. The repercussions of what we did with that invasion we will not see the end of for a very long time.” And the deaths of U.S. service members and Afghan civilians haunt her. “My main issue in all this is civilian casualties,” she said. “My brother was a civilian who went to work, and he was murdered.”
Many still differ with Peaceful Tomorrows, but Kelly said: “We have always felt that what joins us to other 9/11 families is so much more important than what divides us.”
This week’s Pax Christi recognition is a further sign that the group’s nonviolent principles have added a needed dimension to the 9/11 discussion. “We weren’t taken very seriously,” Kelly said. “Now there’s much more of an open ear to the issues we tried to address.”