"Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows."
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Bombs were still falling on Afghanistan in mid-January when four Americans who had lost family members on September 11th came to Kabul. They were part of an informal group whose members had found each other in the weeks following the triple terrorist attacks in the United States. They were united in a determination that the death of their loved ones should not be a cause for more killing. Some of them had met on a Walk of Peace and Healing from Washington, D.C. to New York City. Others had written letters to newspapers, or made statements on television. Now, in a trip arranged by the San Francisco group Global Exchange, they were to meet their Afghan counterparts: families who had lost loved ones in the U.S. bombing that began October 7th.
The four Americans were a cross-section of those who were soon to organize September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. Kelly Campbell, an environmental organizer from Oakland, had lost her brother-in-law in the attack on the Pentagon. Derrill Bodley, a music professor from California, had lost his daughter Deora in the plane that went down in Pennsylvania. Eva Rupp, who works for a government agency in Washington, D.C., was Deora's step-sister. And Rita Lasar, retired now from the electronics factory she ran with her late husband, had lost her brother Abe in the World Trade Center when he refused to leave the side of his friend who was in a wheelchair.
In addition to their grief and shock at the terrorist attacks, delegation members had had to overcome other obstacles to make the trip. The first attempted trip had to be postponed, as some potential members were deterred by their parentsâ€™ fears about flying, and about the safety of their loved ones once in Kabul. Moreover, the basic premise of their trip -- the human equality of the loss of loved ones -- flew in the face of the U.S. government's demonization of Afghanistan, and its repeated denials that bombing had caused substantial casualties among civilian noncombatants. Despite detailed estimates showing that by mid-December thousands of Afghani civilians had been killed by U.S. bombs, U.S. government spokespeople repeatedly called into question not only the accuracy of such statements, but the patriotism of those who made them.
The meetings in Afghanistan took place over ten days. Through interpreters, the Americans shared their stories with the Afghan hosts. An early meeting was in a poor neighborhood in Kabul, where a bomb destroyed five houses, killing six civilians. Abdul Azizullah, who lost four family members, said: "We have the same pain. I expressed my sorrow to the Americans, because they also lost family members." At another meeting, Derrill Bodley and Abdul Basir shared photos of their daughters, and Bodley played a CD with a song, "Steps to Peace," that he composed for his daughter two days after her death. In house where repair work had not erased signs of bomb damage, Rita Lasar and Amin Said had a moment of silence to honor Abe Zelmanowitz of Brooklyn and Iqbal and Zarlas Said of Kabul, Said's brother and sister-in-law.
Formally launched at a press conference at the UN on February 14th, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows poses three fundamental challenges to the "War on Terrorism." The first challenge denies that war and violence are effective in achieving the supposed goal of making Americans safe. They are "poor chisels," in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words, "for carving out peaceful tomorrows." With the ambiguous ending of the war against Afghanistan, perhaps more Americans than ever are open to alternatives to endless war against the world's poor as a strategy to make us safer. The second challenge denies that the victims of violence or terrorism want or require revenge to right their wrongs. As Peaceful Tomorrows member Amber Amundson wrote in a letter to the Chicago Tribune in late September, "If you choose to respond to this incomprehensible brutality by perpetuating violence against other innocent human beings, you may not do so in the name of justice for my husband." And the third challenge denies the foundation of so much of U.S. foreign policy, that Americans are somehow more worthy than other human beings, and that the sufferings of poorer and (usually) darker people far away are insignificant. Each of these challenges, though vigorously opposed by official opinion and (thus) the mass media, resonates strongly with millions of Americans.
What makes September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows a powerful carrier of these challenges is the moral authority of its members. This is readily apparent in the news accounts of member speaking engagements posted on the organization's web site. At a meeting at my local library, Rita Lasar riveted the interest of her audience, simply by telling her story and by asserting that war in the name of her dead brother was wrong. Yet the group's main strength -- its ability to personalize issues of responsibility and moral choice in an increasingly violent world -- also places a heavy burden on grieving family members to tell their story over and over again. This problem is compounded by dwindling media interest, as the "war on terrorism" moves on from Afghanistan to other targets. Much will depend on whether Peaceful Tomorrows can find new speakers and leaders to supplement the strength of the original, founding core.
To meet this challenge Peaceful Tomorrows has set up a national organizational structure with four regional, full-time organizers. The group's main programmatic initiatives -- pressure for U.S. government compensation of civilian victims of bombing in Afghanistan, and the establishment of a grassroots fund to do just that -- are increasingly relevant as news stories of unmet reconstruction needs in Afghanistan reach U.S. audiences. (As Peaceful Tomorrows points out, if 2,000 families of bombing victims were each given a grant of $10,000, this would be far less money than was expended on a single day's bombing during the war.) A summer retreat is planned to integrate the several dozen new members and develop speaking and other skills, and to plan future activities and direction. Roles are also being carved out for the hundreds of supporters who have expressed solidarity and offered assistance.
Just as September 11th was a unique event in our history, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows is an unprecedented mobilization of personal courage in the cause for peace. It is a resource for all opponents of war to nurture and support. More information about the group and how we can support its work are found on its website: www.peacefultomorrows.org.
(This article was reprinted from the Resist Newsletter. Resist can be contacted at www.resistinc.org.)