In Conversation: Creating Peaceful Tomorrows
David Potorti with Mridu Chandra
In response to 9/11, the Bush Administration launched its war on terrorism, as well as the war in Iraq. In February of 2002, "September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows" formed to promote non-violent solutions to terrorism. Last year, the group was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Rail’s Mridu Chandra recently engaged David Potorti, the founder of Peaceful Tomorrows, in a discussion about the Bush Administration’s uses of 9/11.
Mridu Chandra (Rail): You lost your brother in the attack on the WTC, and you’ve frequently said that you did not feel anger when it happened. So many Americans wanted revenge and supported the bombing of Afghanistan that immediately followed the attack. How did your grieving process lead you to Peaceful Tomorrows?
Potorti: I was not angry at the people that did this, because the people who literally did this were dead. They were suicide attackers. But I was mad at the whole system that would allow these things to happen and would bring the attackers to the point that they felt they had to do this. I was mad when I realized we were spending a billion dollars a day on national defense but these people still managed to get on the planes.
But I always talk about my mom’s reaction. The first thing she said when we came to the conclusion that my brother would not be found— this was Friday the 14th— was, "I don’t want anyone else to have to feel the pain that I am feeling right now." These feelings about my brother’s loss, I came to realize, were almost exactly the feelings that a lot of other people had, especially the people who would join our group— we don’t want revenge, we don’t want to continue the cycle of violence. When somebody dies, you don’t want anybody else to die.
Rail: Yet Bush has systematically been using the death of your loved ones as a justification for war, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq, and more generally against terrorism.
Potorti: We didn’t make it a justification. Obviously the Administration did that. It is an excuse to further an agenda of military aggression and acquisition of oil. It is totally in my mind an economic war, not anything in terms of East vs. West, or of philosophical issues. As I look back on it now, I see September 11th more as an adjustment, a balancing out of the extremism in the world.
Rail: You mean in terms of an unequal distribution of power?
Potorti: Yes, it’s almost like September 11th was an adjustment to an economic reality, rife with inequality. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were a continuation of this power struggle.
But I always say not to get personal about George Bush and blame him specifically because I think he represents very powerful interests that would be there with or without him. I think putting the focus simply on getting rid of Bush in the fall, by not reelecting him or whatever, is ill-conceived. Even if he goes away, the forces he represents will not go away. I think we have to settle in for the long term and start battling the forces he represents.
Rail: Peaceful Tomorrows advocates peaceful solutions to terrorism. War is not the answer. How did this pacifist stance evolve for you? How do you answer people when they say that nonviolence cannot work in a post 9/11 terrorist world, when you are facing people who are willing to resort to suicide bombings?
Potorti: I don’t think you’d call it a pacifist position in the sense of being passive. There has to be some kind of response. Resistance is a better word. We are resisting the direction that our country is going in, quite strongly. It is an understanding that if somebody did this to us, and we do it back to them, the situation will just escalate, and increase violence.
We are putting people in Iraq and Afghanistan into a position where they have nothing left to lose. They will become even more desperate when they have lost their families, their homes, their communities. If we keeping putting people in a position where they have nothing left to lose, they may be free to become terrorists.
I am reading this book about who killed Daniel Pearl, and it is already really clear that the person who killed him was outraged at the treatment of Muslims at Guantanamo Bay. That is how the lawlessness of 9/11 produced the lawlessness of Guantanamo, which produced the lawlessness of Daniel Pearl’s murder. It is a cycle of violence, violence begets violence. The only way you can stop that is by saying no, no more, we will not respond to violence with violence.
Rail: It sounds as if you are speaking about a sense of accountability for our actions, especially in terms of our military aggression. Many Americans do not see that the government’s foreign policy reflects on them, and think that the government acts independently of them. Based on your speaking engagements around the world, how do you think people in other countries view the American public?
Potorti: As Americans, we’ve always had this feeling that people can separate what our government does from our people. But when we went to Iraq in January 2003, there were times when people were very angry at us. They said "why don’t you stop this war, because we know what’s going to happen. 50% of the people in Iraq are kids under the age of 15. Why don’t you stop it?" It was the first experience I remember of somebody holding us accountable for what we did.
We are a democracy, not a dictatorship. We are responsible for what our government does. The Afghan people, however, were not responsible for the Taliban. They were living in a country that was bombed incessantly for years and disrupted by the Russians and now the Americans. A vacuum had been created, allowing the Taliban to rise to power. But in a democracy we are responsible for what our government does and that includes our country’s foreign policy.
I think the 21st century will be the century of accountability. I think people are really starting to hold us accountable for what we do and I really hope that we start holding our government accountable for what it does. If we don’t, it will be at our own peril.
Rail: You have spoken about the "dangerous course of current policies" and call for a new approach to 9/11 that is focused on bringing about true security and justice. What are these dangerous trends and what are some viable options in terms of security and counter-terrorism?
Potorti: The dangerous trend is pretending that we are living on our own planet, that we can do things without having any effect on the rest of the world. When, in fact, we have had our fingers in everybody else’s pie around the world for decades. Certainly since the end of WWII, we’ve got troops all over the world for no particular reason. I was in South Korea over Thanksgiving, and there are 37,000 troops there. Why, I don’t know. There was such resentment and anger at having U.S. troops in that country.
There are all of these images of the U.S., which Bush has played with. We’re a "sleeping giant, slow to anger but when we are roused we are powerful and fierce." That’s just a lie. We have been at war with somebody virtually every day of our nation’s existence, for 200 some years.
In terms of solutions, it is difficult to counter the use of force, because force is so glamorous and satisfying. It is so satisfying to see bombs drop on something and feel we are accomplishing something. You can see it, it’s tangible. In some short-term way, it has results. But in the medium term, I think that it does not have positive results.
In a general sense what we (PT) talk about is aligning ourselves with moderate regimes. That is one solution. Another solution is to get back to the roots, in the old-fashioned sense of being a radical, of what it is that makes America great. What it is that makes people admire us so much. Politically, I feel we need to spend more time obeying the law and following our constitution, rather than dismissing these things as luxuries that we can’t afford in times of war.
One of the projects I am trying to get funding for would provide a speaking tour in high schools where it would be somebody like me and a returning veteran just talking about our experiences. And it would provide a civil discourse for kids who are just getting mixed messages about supporting your country, supporting your troops.
Rail: So much of the Bush administration’s response to the attack has been top-down. They are at War with Terror. It’s a paternalistic attitude really, telling us to be quiet and if we give more money to the Pentagon, they will take care of us. They haven’t asked us to do anything in terms of educating ourselves about recent history, or conserving oil to reduce our dependency on Arab countries. Are there things that ordinary Americans can do to deter terrorism?
Potorti: I tell people when I speak that the system isn’t broken. I think politicians are incredibly responsive to their constituents. At present the corporations are making perfect use of the systems of our government and getting richly rewarded by using it. So I tell people to just use the system.
I think people should organize themselves on a local level, and start at the other end as you are suggesting. They should start with their local representatives, their congressperson, their senators. Contact them on a regular basis, arrange meetings and make some demands in a sensible and logical way. I think those things will be very effective in making our representatives responsive to us.
I think we have to remember the power of individuals to change history. We are consciously brainwashed to forgetting things like the Solidarity movement in Poland, the wall coming down in Germany, the end of Apartheid in South Africa, the civil rights movement in the U.S.— these are all very powerful people’s movements that did not involve violence. We have to change our way of thinking to know that we have more power than bombs.
Rail: What are some of the things that Peaceful Tomorrows has done in terms of using the system?
Potorti: One of the first things we did, in January 2002, before our group officially started, was go to Afghanistan and meet with civilians there. We came back and lobbied Congress to create an Afghan victims fund. Bush never responded to us, but we went on to raise $6,000 from little house parties, for a start. We then got Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Senator, to insert language into an appropriations bill that would specify monies for rebuilding homes and infrastructure damaged by the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan. We just recently got a list of projects actually done as a result of that appropriation— finding out who got money and where the money went. So that was a real victory for us. It was also a victory of consciousness.
Rail: Meeting civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq is such a political act, directly in opposition to what the Administration is doing. Moreover, you have spoken in more than 127 countries, and in 26 states in the U.S. What kind of responses have you received?
Potorti: I would say that we are really acting like diplomats when we go overseas. Everywhere we go people say that everything they see coming out of America is George Bush, and they think all Americans are George Bush. We are doing what our foreign policy should do, reaching out to people who offered their support after 9/11, and uniting with them to talk about alternatives to war.
On a personal level it’s helpful to meet people who have experienced what I have. We are not so unique— but instead are part of a bigger family who have suffered terrorism and war. And we don’t have to be singled out as special, but we are part of a unique group of people who have suffered the same way we have. Experiencing that changed our whole attitude about 9/11, because if you look at it as an exceptional event, as if this has never happened before in history of mankind, ever, where 3,000 civilians were killed in an act of terrorism, then that gives you license to respond in an exceptional way, whether that means ignoring due process or just dropping bombs.
Rail: In terms of reconciliation, could it happen? Has there been any contact with the families of the terrorists, such as they did in the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa?
Potorti: We haven’t contacted families of terrorists. Yes, there is an interest. That is the core thing we could do. A woman who lost her father to a terrorist in Northern Ireland visited the man who killed her father in prison, and that is how she came to understand him and come to some kind of closure. To the average American, the idea of us meeting with the families of those who killed our family members just sounds like a horrifying ordeal. But what we keep hearing from people is that is an incredibly necessary part of understanding what happened. So that is why we would want to do it. But part of our fear in mentioning it is that people would say "you people are just out of your fucking minds." And there are also the legal aspects. I don’t have any idea if we can actually talk to them, or if we are going to be arrested for trying to make contact with them.
Rail: You have traveled the world and have recently written a book that tells the story of Peaceful Tomorrows. Are you preaching to the converted?
Potorti: Yeah. Mostly. I lobbied to write it because I am a writer. And when I wrote it in the spring of 2003, it was very difficult. I went into deep depression. It became impossible for me to function. So it was hard to do. But I think it is a good representation of the feeling that went into creating our group, and it covers the first year or so of our work. It’s getting published in Japanese and Italian on March 20th.
Rail: Does your work hold special significance in those countries?
Potorti: Japan was the first group to really reach out to us. NHK did a 90-minute documentary in Japanese, which aired seven times and won the country’s biggest doc award. They see a connection between us and what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They said that kids in Japan are getting bored with peace. Bored with being told to never forget Nagasaki. They see us as a way to renew that experience and show that these issues are not dead. And Italy has an incredible peace movement, which covers all segments of society, and is supported on a civil level by local town governments and city governments. I think 90% of Italians were against the Iraq war. They are interested in peace.
Rail: How do you view the 2004 elections?
Potorti: First, our organization is a 501© 3, and thus is not allowed to endorse candidates. But here is my new catch phrase: It’s not what’s happening in the White House it’s what’s happening in your house. We really have to take charge of our country. Whoever the president is, he really is an employee of ours. We have to stop treating him like a king and start treating him like an employee and tell him what to do. I get frustrated with people who are wringing their hands and hoping that some Democrat will ride into office on a white horse and save us.
We have to see to it that whoever is in office will be held accountable. And if Bush gets elected for a second term, we can hold him accountable. It’s not the end of the world. In a democracy, it’s always up to us, so when people talk about it being a make-or-break election, I think that they don’t get it. The point is that we have to be in charge of our own destiny.
Mridu Chandra is a filmmaker and writer living in New York.