Following the news that Osama bin Laden, the man responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, had been killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan, many Americans took to the streets to celebrate. Draped in American flags, they chanted "USA! USA!" and lit sparklers and fireworks. The next morning, newspapers appeared with exultant headlines. "Vengeance at Last! US Nails the Bastard," declared the New York Post, while more sedate publications quoted President Obama's speech: "Justice has been done."
Meanwhile, some of the family members of those who lost their lives during bin Laden's attack—a group that some might have expected to join in the celebrations—released a quiet statement:
It is our hope that the rule of law, underpinned by our Constitution that was so terribly strained in the name of September 11th, will again become the guiding light of our policies at home and abroad. One person may have played a central role in the September 11th attacks, but all of us have a role to play in returning our world to a place of peace, hope and new possibilities. We hope that process will begin today.
It came from September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group that has confounded some people's expectations since it was formed in the aftermath of 9/11. Members came together not because they wanted to see their loved ones avenged, but because they didn't want the cycle of violence that led to their deaths to continue. They have opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the extrajudicial procedures of Guantánamo Bay, the backlash against the so-called Ground-Zero Mosque, and even the death penalty for Zacarias Moussaoui, convicted on charges of terrorism.
I spoke with Andrea LeBlanc, a veterinarian and board member of Peaceful Tomorrows whose husband, Robert, died at the World Trade Center, to find out what it's like to work for peace when the world expects you to want revenge.
Brooke Jarvis: Would you mind telling me about your experience on 9/11—what happened, how you felt?
Andrea LeBlanc: My husband, Robert LeBlanc, taught cultural geography at the University of New Hampshire; he was on his way to a conference in L.A. that morning. He flew out of Logan Airport in Boston [on Flight 175, the plane that hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center].
This past Sunday, I was out running errands and just enjoying the day—it was such a beautiful, glorious day. And it struck me—I’ve thought this at other times, too, but it struck me again on Sunday—that this beautiful day, it could be lost in a flash. That’s what happened on 9/11: You’re blindsided by something that happens without warning, and changes everything. 9/11 was devastating, for lots of reasons. It took me and my family a long time to come to grips with it.
Brooke Jarvis: How did you feel when you heard the news about the killing of bin Laden?
Andrea LeBlanc: People keep asking: “So did this bring closure?” And I don’t know if I believe there is such a thing; I really don’t know what it means. When tragedy hits, you slowly, over time, learn to absorb it. It becomes part of the fabric of your life; it doesn’t go away, you just learn to live with it.
Certainly the death of bin Laden didn’t afford closure for any of the family members I know. None of us were feeling like celebrating. I guess in part because you just don’t celebrate the death of anyone, even someone who’s essentially your enemy. It’s just anathema.
Eventually, we all figured he would be found. But it wasn’t, for me, some kind of goal to be achieved that was then going to somehow make everything right.
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Osama bin Laden was one man. His being off the scene doesn’t solve the problem. 9/11 didn’t come out of nowhere; there were decisions, including on the part of the U.S., that led to it. Those questions still haven’t really been asked, much less answered. I find myself thinking the same things I thought on 9/11: Where does this come from? What has happened to these human beings that made it possible for them to enact such horrific attacks? What spurs that hatefulness? I believe that human beings are born with the ability to be empathetic and compassionate, equal to, or maybe greater than, our ability to be aggressive. It’s about what you nurture.
Brooke Jarvis: How did you get involved with Families for a Peaceful Tomorrow, and what has it meant to you over the years?
Andrea LeBlanc: After 9/11, I felt very estranged because my responses weren’t the responses everyone else seemed to be having. There was a very early coming together of goodwill and kindness, and then it quickly changed into what I found to be a rather frightening patriotism. At the time, I didn’t have the strength to argue with that; I really felt like I just needed to go lick my wounds and when I was better, stronger, I would come out. But I felt very alone amidst all the flag-waving and rallying to war, because that wasn’t my response, wasn’t my kids’ response, wouldn’t have been my husband’s response.
Before I found out about Peaceful Tomorrows, I had seen, I think on Bill Moyers’ program, that a group of people who had lost family members on 9/11 had gone to Afghanistan to meet with families who had lost family members to U.S. bombs. And I was so grateful to them. I sat there in tears, so grateful that someone had done something that made sense to me. As it turns out, there were lots of other people saying the same kind of thing I felt: Not in my loved one’s name.
Kathy Kelly, from what was then called Voices in the Wilderness, contacted all these people she saw writing letters to the editor or giving speeches or whatever and said, “Do you know about each other?” And they didn’t. So she suggested that they all meet, at a walk from the Pentagon to New York, in November of 2001. That was the beginning of Peaceful Tomorrows, which they launched the next spring. I didn’t hear about them until the following December. A contingent of 4 women had gone to Iraq in the lead-up to the war to try to show the human face of the people of Iraq, and so I went to New York City and met them. In a sense, that has been the structure of my life since then.
Brooke Jarvis: In what way?
Andrea LeBlanc: The idea that really resonates with me is that we have a choice, all the time, about what we do with our emotions. Anger and despair can both destroy you—I might have succumbed to despair if I hadn’t found Peaceful Tomorrows—but you’ve got a choice to not let that happen, to instead do something positive with the emotion.
For the 5-year commemoration of 9/11, we convened an international meeting of 30 organizations that all were essentially about bringing together victims and victims’ families to look for nonviolent solutions to conflict. These were people from all over the world: South Africa, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Japan; mothers of the disappeared in Chile, families of victims of the Madrid bombing, Israelis and Palestinians whose families have been killed.
Truly horrific things had happened to them and their families. I met a Rwandan who lost 35 members of his family; people whose lives, villages, potential, future, education, were just destroyed. In a lot of ways, what they faced was far more devastating than what happened to us on 9/11. I said that to a Rwandan, and he said, “You’re wrong. It’s all the same.” I was just struck dumb.
These people gathered together and were immediately friends, were laughing and being together, and out of that group came the International Network for Peace. It’s a bit of a struggle to maintain because of distances and languages and lack of computer access, but it’s a powerful network of people who are all walking the same road in the same direction.
There are lots of stories like that out there, just lots and lots of them. But people don’t know that. History comes to be about the terrible things, the stories of war and hatred and trauma. The Gandhis and the Martin Luther Kings almost become footnotes. My own personal mission is to make those stories of peace and humanity as ubiquitous as the terrible things—there’s so much good in the world that people don’t know about, but need to know about.
You know, I’m a grandmother. I think that my grandchildren deserve to have the wealth of these stories and to know about people who did things another way, who didn’t use violence.
Brooke Jarvis: In the aftermath of 9/11, YES! was part of a campaign called “Justice not Vengeance.” We’ve seen, I think, a lot of examples of what forms vengeance can take. What, to you, would justice look like?
Andrea LeBlanc: First of all, I think justice is found in the courtroom, not on a battlefield. Since its beginning, Peaceful Tomorrows has been working not only to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but to close Guantánamo.
Yesterday, people kept saying, “Justice has been served.” I didn’t feel that way. Yes, bin Laden did a horrific, terrible thing. But I would have preferred that he be brought before a court of law. This was an assassination, and I’m afraid it will serve to inflame others, that he’ll become a martyr.
I think there’s a perception, at least in this society, that if you’re a victim, you not only deserve retribution, but you need it. To heal. There have been many instances, since 9/11, of anger directed at the things Peaceful Tomorrows’ members have said and done—for example, speaking out against the death penalty or as part of the defense of Zacarias Moussaoui. People were furious at us for doing this. You just wonder, where does this need to be so angry come from? I reject the idea that revenge is necessary, or normal, or just.
Brooke Jarvis: When big events like this happen, the media often asks for the perspectives of 9/11 families. But you live with the legacy every day. What are the more long-term messages you’d like to send?
Andrea LeBlanc: We’re very aware that a lot of what’s happened as a result of 9/11—two wars and all the military deaths, plus the far, far larger number of civilian deaths; the destruction of lives and countries; the erosion of our civil liberties and judicial system; the intolerance, xenophobia, Islamaphobia—has been made possible because of the fear factor. If you get people frightened enough, you can almost do anything, and its counter to what this country is based on.
Our concern about all of those things is interwoven with the fact that all of this was done in the name of 9/11. It makes us feel like somehow we’ve been handed a responsibility that we don’t always know what to do with, or always even want. But it’s there, you can’t put it down, you can’t ignore it. We have to stand there and say, “No. This isn’t just cause. And we aren’t honored that people are being killed in the names of our loved ones or of the attacks on 9/11.”
I personally feel like so much more good could be done with the dollars that we now spend on the military machine. I don’t think there are military solutions to the problem of terrorism. The people we know in Afghanistan are saying they want us out; I wish our government was listening to the people and the peacemakers, not just the politicians and the military. If a democracy is to be built there, they have to do it. I’m sure that it won’t be easy, and some Americans are very concerned it will be our fault if there’s more fighting. But if the people of Afghanistan are telling us that it’s not helping to have our military presence, that it’s making things worse, then I think we should be listening.
Brooke Jarvis: Could you tell me a bit about your husband?
Andrea LeBlanc: At his memorial service, the head of the geography department—my husband had been the chair until he retired the year before—said that Bob would have been the person his students, friends, colleagues, and certainly our family would have turned to for a better understanding of what was really behind the attacks. And Bob would have known, because he paid attention; it’s the kind of mind he had. He was always interested in knowing why people did what they did, believed what they did, ate what they ate, lived where they lived. He firmly believed that the more you actually go to places and meet people and try to understand them, the more you realize that the human commonalities are far greater than the differences, and harder to deny. And, one would hope, harder to vilify.
After he died, I really felt like all the doors and windows in my life had just been slammed shut. Bob’s perceptions were so interesting and broadening to me. I’m a veterinarian; my perceptions were more about connectedness to the natural world and the animal world, not so focused on world politics. So I had a lot of catching up to do. And all of us felt that way. My son would say, “Dad was my encyclopedia; when I need him most to understand what this is all about, he’s not here.”
At the service, the head of the department quoted the Quran: “O Mankind, We have created you from a male and female, made you into tribes and nations, that you may know one another, not that you may hate one another.” And he said it was ironic that Bob was killed by the very forces that didn’t know the other when he spent his whole life trying to understand the other.
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