Putting our grief to work for peace

9/11 was a watershed event in history. But, certainly what happened in the U.S. was not an isolated and distant incident; it was something that has been experienced all over the world — from the political violence of war to state terrorism. Violence will only beget violence. I say that with an awakened heart born out of mourning and not even as a pacifist but a realist. The cycles of violence must be broken.

On September 11, 2001, I lost my brother Specialist Craig Scott Amundson in the Pentagon. Life hasn’t been easy for any of us in my family since 9/11. I think we will always be grieving.

My brother Craig entered the Army not to go to war but to provide the benefits of health insurance and housing for his family. He drove to the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, each day with a peace bumper sticker, and he sincerely hoped that the U.S. role in the world could effect change for good. As a college graduate, he was given a desk job in the Pentagon as a graphic designer, which is what I was employed as on the West Coast in San Francisco. We had plans to start a business together once he was out of the Army. I often joked with him about how the Pentagon was really just a big office building like the advertising firm I worked in, only bigger.

The morning of 9/11, I turned on the TV and saw the destruction. I knew Craig was in the Pentagon, but I assumed that he was OK — I had always thought we were lucky — how could this time be any different? The hole resulting from the attack on the Pentagon looked very small compared to the immense size and significance of that building on the television, and compared with the devastating collapse of the World Trade Center. But as the hours dragged on Craig did not call home, and gradually I became numb, knowing that the worst had occurred.

I had never lost someone as close as my brother before, and I did not know how I should be feeling. Alternately the feelings of loss, regret, sadness, anger, resentment at the world, and even joy in holding him up in remembrance were all there.

I remember having a conversation with my family about the inevitable military response to this — we were all concerned about the people who would be the innocent civilian victims — just like us, those who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Regardless of the different political views in our family, we did not feel that killing more people in military retaliation would bring comfort — rather more horror.

We agreed talk of revenge was not what my brother would have wanted. This kind of violence that came to our family was something that we wished on no one else.

Amidst the outpouring of compassion for the victims’ families, the media called for “vengeance.” Voices of moderation in response to 9/11 were often shouted down by war supporters: “Try to tell that to the victims’ families,” they said. Various pundits in the media were claiming to speak for 9/11 family victims, and demanding military retaliation.

I, like everyone I knew, felt reconciliation between my family and friends. Division and petty resentments between family and friends became insignificant in light of the immense tragedy. The artificial walls that people had created between each other seemed to not matter. Past problems were trivial compared to what had happened, and people seemed to have a bittersweet knowledge — that life is precious, our time is short, and the one thing that truly makes a difference in our life on earth is to help other people.

I feel that this culture and this world needs to know grieving in a healthy way. In all our material pursuits, we in the modern world seem to ignore death — pursue life as if there is always something more to acquire.

In popular culture, retribution and vengeance at whatever cost to others are often glorified. It makes for an easy plot element in a feature-length film (or a simple way to discuss a tragic situation on the nightly news), but the reality of violence’s effect on a family is quite different.

We wanted a way for something good to arise from so much destruction. And a desire to grieve in a healthy way — to not end up focused on anger as the sole response, as was being called for in the media and the Bush administration. I remember being very affected by a funeral eulogy written by Debi Corcoran, who lost her brother:

“It would be easy for us to shun culpability, to claim victimization. ... But I don’t believe my brother and all those other beautiful spirits made the supreme sacrifice so we can go on with business as usual. We cannot harm another without harming ourselves. Let our collective goal be justice for all.”

There was an idea that 9/11 could be a “teachable moment” — and that we had had enormous responsibility thrust into our lives to make sure that our loved ones’ names were not used for violence, but to teach peace.

Soon after 9/11, families started seeking each other out with similar views in order to provide solace, and organize. We formed September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows in order to put our “grief to work for peace as a path toward healing,” seeking to highlight nonviolent responses to terrorism and to identify a commonality with all people affected by violence, regardless of borders.

One of the first actions of members of Peaceful Tomorrows was to go to Afghanistan to share grief with civilian victims of the U.S. military action — to show the world that our experiences were not so different from theirs. This generated the first television news reports concerning Afghan civilian casualties. News editors did not have a way to present the story without seeming “un-American” in this time of fear. But because 9/11 families went, they were able to have a sympathetic story about the Afghan people presented to the public.

Since then there have been other delegations to Afghanistan and then Iraq, lobbying and speaking out. That is what I believe the role of 9/11 families for peace is — to show the larger society and the world that those who have gone through violence and mourning want peace and reconciliation by standing with victims of violence. To respond to violence with nonviolence. Certainly it is the challenge of any victims of violence to overcome the simple desire for revenge and retaliation and to speak out for reconciliation.

Currently members of Peaceful Tomorrows are putting together an international conference comprised of people affected by political violence [Sept. 5-11, New York City — see www.peacefultomorrows.org]. There are families of victims of violence invited from Israel, Palestine, Algeria, Chile, Colombia, Italy, Cuba and other places in the world. We hope that this event will be the start of more international cooperation between those who are victims of conflict, and to use their voices to advocate nonviolence in resolving conflict.

I believe the world can be shown a way out of violence. I believe those who have experienced it in their lives and who can overcome hate, fear, nationalism and a desire for vengeance can do a great part, but that this work will never be done.

I hope that our actions are a seed for more involvement and it is my fervent hope that millions will join our voices and demand that the world will be rid of all war and nuclear weapons.

Barry Amundson is a member of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. These remarks, delivered in August to the World Conference Against A & H Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, are reprinted, slightly abridged, from the organization’s web site, www.peacefultomorrows.org.