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Towards more peaceful tomorrows

September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows

September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows is the only organization of 9/11 family members actively organizing to create such counterarchives of 9/11 memory. Resisting dominant narratives of 9/11 that uphold nationalist tropes of victimization and militarism, Peaceful Tomorrows offers a counter-archive of 9/11 memory-making in its connection to other subjugated histories and narratives of suffering. Peaceful Tomorrows’ member Andrea LeBlanc describes what sets this organization apart from all other 9/11 family groups:

The focus of other 9/11 groups has been very different... It’s been about memorials; it’s been about what to do with remains ... compensation, legal assistance, insurance, grief and trauma counseling for partners and families. In my mind all of these groups have essentially formed, or did essentially form, around an inward-looking focus. I see them as circling the wagons and taking care of the needs of a victimized community. Peaceful Tomorrows was about looking outwards. (Personal Communication, February 2013)

The organization derives its name from powerful words spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in opposition to the US war in Vietnam: “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows” (Peaceful Tomorrows, n.d., “History”). Comprised of approximately 200 family members and inspired by histories of non-violent political activism, the organization is staunchly opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the erasure of constitutional protections and international human rights in the context of the global war on terrorism. In its commitment to “outward thinking,” Peaceful Tomorrows invests its resources in turning collective grief into peaceful action. To accomplish this goal, the organization spearheads several political campaigns, including efforts to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and to confront global Islamophobia.

I was fortunate to solicit interviews with several of the organization’s founding members and to learn more about the organization’s history, membership, and political campaigns through its members’ experiences. According to founding member Colleen Kelly, “our mission [at Peaceful Tomorrows] is about non-violent responses to violence” (Personal Communication, January 2013). As Ms. Kelly expands,

The themes of justice and non-violence are really important to our organization... Our family members were murdered in a pretty horrific way and they suffered greatly, so there must be accountability for the perpetrators of those acts. So then how do we [as a nation] bring justice where we are not continuing cycles of violence? We are conditioned in the US toward violent responses... It was very tough to think outside that box in those early months after September 11th, but I do think it is important to find voices, family members or not, who are saying that non-violence is a valid response; it is valid because it includes justice and it includes accountability. There are ways to have accountability without injuring others and creating more grieving families. (Personal Communication, January 2013)

Through Peaceful Tomorrows, 9/11 families mobilize their grief in resistance to dominant, nationalist discourses of cultural suffering that endorse military intervention and human rights violations as a principal response to terrorism. Offering alternative responses to pervasive cultural sentiments, Peaceful Tomorrows is dedicated to the non-violent and lawful pursuit of justice for victims’ family members.

Themes of justice and non-violence resonated throughout my interviews with Peaceful Tomorrows. Members described seeking alternative dialogues and political spaces to challenge prevailing cultural attitudes toward the attacks. As founding member Terry Rockefeller recalled of her initial experiences with the organization.

With Peaceful Tomorrows there was such a sense of kindred spirit... To have 9/11 families say, “Please don’t kill other people,” it was just astounding.... I hurt so much from 9/11 that I couldn’t imagine hurting other people. It was a visceral feeling. It was this visceral sense that 9/11 had been—I just kept visualizing bombs falling on a family in Afghanistan and it was just like a plane hitting the World Trade Center. It just seemed like repeating this horrible thing... It would be repeating it, and it was exactly the wrong thing to do. (Personal Communication, February 2013)

In describing her politicization of 9/11 memory as a “visceral feeling” to the looming war in Afghanistan, Ms. Rockefeller redirects trauma in an important maneuver to think—and, perhaps more importantly, to feel—beyond dominant, state-sanctioned discourses of loss, suffering, and vindication. Here, affective heritage compels the family member to re-remember her own grief and pain, leading her to speak up against those fostering public emotion as a weapon to inflict suffering elsewhere.

Robyn Bernstein, another member of the organization, echoes this observation, saying that

one of the tenets of Peaceful Tomorrows is that other people do not experience the tragic loss of life that we did, the civilian cost of aggression and war... We organize to raise awareness and to stop other people from having that experience. (Personal Communication, February 2013)

By challenging geopolitical hierarchies of victimization that value the suffering of First-World lives over the lives of those residing elsewhere (see Chapter 4), Peaceful Tomorrows families resist state practices of memory and memorialization that both normalize their losses and politicize their pain as worthy of the state’s retribution and other acts of national aggression. 9/11 memory continues to be misused to justify military responses at home and abroad in the name of national security. This justification operates, as Peaceful Tomorrows’ members stressed, in the name of 9/11 families and their loved ones. Peaceful Tomorrows’ member Andrea LeBlanc reflects on the organization’s efforts to resist this instrumentalization of 9/11 families’ pain, particularly the impact Peaceful Tomorrows had on shifting public discourse about acts of retaliation in the aftermath of the attacks:

In the early years people were silenced. They were accused of being anti-patriotic if they said anything. So much has been said over the years about not respecting those that were killed on 9/11, and PT members just bridle with that. The position we take [at Peaceful Tomorrows] gives others permission to actually embrace—to believe what they already believe. (Personal Communication, February 2013)

Peaceful Tomorrows’ convictions are thus strengthened by the positionality of its members to speak as a unified cohort of family members (Personal Communication, Nancy Meyer, March 2013). State responses to the September 11 attacks have, as a result, become key points of contention for Peaceful Tomorrows’ political organizing. The organization openly contests dominant, nationalist archives of 9/11 memory through its own counternarratives of familial grief, trauma, and loss to build political communities beyond retribution.

As prevailing scripts of 9/11 memory continue to produce a toxic culture of xenophobia and habitual fear (see Pain and Smith 2008), the United States is locked into what amounts to a post-traumatic loop of violation, vindication, and vengeance. Thinking—and thus feeling—beyond this melancholic loop is imperative if we as a nation are to truly envision collective closure and cultural healing. To contribute to such efforts, Peaceful Tomorrows learns from other groups and organizations dedicated to healing from violent pasts. As Ms. LeBlanc eloquently summarizes, “[t]alking and getting to know the ‘other,’ and being open to the story of the other side, is the only way things are going to change” (Personal Communication, February 2013).

The remainder of this conclusion addresses the political alliances and counter-archives of trauma fostered between Peaceful Tomorrows and its partnering organizations. In these archives, personal and cultural trauma is mobilized to deflect grief and suffering elsewhere, as well as to heal across cultural difference and geographical distance. Several organizational partnerships were mentioned throughout my interviews with Peaceful Tomorrows, but I focus here on those collaborations mentioned most frequently.

Parents circle

Even prior to the organization’s official founding on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2002, future members of Peaceful Tomorrows were being contacted by likeminded practitioners of peace. Among the first to make contact with the group’s founding members was Parents Circle, an organization comprised of both Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children to the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. According to Yitzhak Frankenthal, the organization’s founder, “if we, who have lost our dear ones, do not seek revenge and hatred but reconciliation—so can anyone” (quoted in Peaceful Tomorrows 2011c). In line with the sentiments of Peaceful Tomorrows, Parents Circle organizes politically from a place of vulnerability and loss to break future cycles of violence. Both organizations partner through workshops and speaking engagements where they share their divergent experiences of loss and vulnerability in hopes of foreclosing proprietary scripts of victimization that merely reproduce violence—on all sides—in the name of bereavement (see Chapter 3).

Institute for healing of memories

The Institute for Healing of Memories (IHM) is another key organizational ally in the early years of Peaceful Tomorrows. Located in Cape Town, South Africa, the Institute for Healing of Memories was founded by Father Michael Lapsley, an Anglican anti-apartheid activist who, because of his political work against the apartheid government, was victim to a letter bomb that left him severely maimed (Peaceful Tomorrows 2011a). According to Peaceful Tomorrows,

Father Michael’s work assists faith communities in the process of healing the psychological, emotional, and spiritual wounds of violence. His ministry in South Africa addresses the ongoing trauma from the apartheid period, and he also travels the world to work with communities seeking to emerge from violence and injustice to non-violence and just relationships. (Peaceful Tomorrows 2011a)

Founding Peaceful Tomorrows’ member Colleen Kelly still recalls her inspirational first interaction with Father Michael:

I met Michael in April of 2002 and he’s the first person who said to me—we were both speaking at a conference about forgiveness in memory—“you can’t forgive your brother’s killers.” And this is after I met him for about two minutes! And I looked at him like, “well you have some nerve?!” [She laughs.] He then went on to say, “Your brother is the only one who can forgive the people who actually murdered him. The only thing you can forgive is how this has affected you and the path of your own life.” And I know that that sounds like it should be self-evident, but it’s not. Because when you have been harmed, the instinct is to go after the people who have harmed the person that you loved; you take it on as your own stuff. 1 think one of the most important things when it comes to memory and memorializing is realizing both individually and collectively what is yours—what is yours to heal from and what is yours to let go, and what is not your responsibility. It’s not about forgiving the perpetrator and getting over it. It’s really about your own healing and what you need to do to heal yourself. And sometimes that involves forgiveness [of others] and sometimes that involves forgiving yourself. (Personal Communication, January 2013, emphasis in original)

By placing trauma survivors in conversation through the organization’s transnational networks, the Institute for Healing of Memories provided Peaceful Tomorrows with an organizational blueprint for approaching victimization from a place of survival; they demonstrated a willingness to engage others’ trauma and bring their stories to bear on individual and intercultural healing processes. Ms. Kelly recalls the collaboration, which included organizing public events and various speaking engagements:

We were new; we were a younger kind of fledgling organization, and here were people who had kind of gone through this before us and said, “No, this can be done. It’s important that our voices be heard because not everyone wants revenge or wants violence, or wants to respond in the way that the world might think. There are alternative narratives to be heard.” So they [IHM] were another really good example for us as our group was forming... It was really helpful to know that there are other groups that are going down this path. Many people have led the way for Peaceful Tomorrows and showed us very concrete examples of how to do this differently. Gave us permission to do that. (Personal Communication, January 2013, emphasis in original).

The Never Again Campaign

The Never Again Campaign was one of the first organizations to reach out to Peaceful Tomorrows after it formed in early 2002. It was founded in 1985 through the collaborative efforts of Japanese and US-based peace activists to share the stories of a-bomb survivors and educate others about the civilian, psychic, and environmental costs of nuclear war. Since 2002, the organizations have partnered on anti-nuclear initiatives and a “person-to-person” speaking campaign that places survivors of the a-bomb in conversation with global audiences (Peaceful Tomorrows 2011b). The project began as a way to place perpetrators and victims of war crimes in conversation with each other in order to promote intercultural healing in the aftermath of conflict.

One of Peaceful Tomorrows’ strongest collaborations. The Never Again Campaign brings the transformative potential of trauma back to the very heart of 9/11 memory in Lower Manhattan. Since the 2001 terror attacks, the World Trade Center has become notoriously associated with the colloquial expression “Ground Zero.” But the term’s former meaning is rooted in World War II histories (and geographies) of US atomic warfare: the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan (see Greenberg 2003). In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, numerous scholars argued against uncritical mobilizations of the euphemism to describe the destruction in Lower Manhattan. And instead, they approached the issue as a missed opportunity to facilitate a broader cultural reckoning with this shameful chapter in US history and to foster inter-group dialogue between Japanese and American contingents (see Greenberg 2003; E. A. Kaplan 2005). Since 9/11, cultural appropriation of the evocative phrase has neither sought to rectify guilt— officially or unofficially—nor has it sustained meaningful cross-cultural conversations on forgiveness and reconciliation as a result of these contrapuntal histories of violation. Rather than evade US responsibility for the horrific violence of atomic warfare, the collaboration between Peaceful Tomorrows and the Never Again Campaign places a-bomb survivors and perpetrating American military personal in direct contact. The counterarchives generated by this forged partnership aim to reinscribe shameful narratives of US history in order to foster meaningful cross-cultural healing from both past and present-day events. In these collaborative spaces, shared vulnerability—admitting one’s harm and admitting one’s guilt for inflicting said harm—hopes to inspire alternative futures for both self and other through mutual stages of growth, healing, and forgiveness.

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