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Families of 9-11 Victims Promote Book for Peace - 2003-09-10

Out of the terrorist attacks of September 11 has come a new call for peace, made by some of those most closely affected by the violence. Some 80 relatives of people who died in the attacks have formed Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group aimed at finding non-military solutions to international conflicts.

To observe the second anniversary of the attacks, the group is planning a silent vigil that will encircle the World Trade Center site on September 10. They've also published a book called September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows: Turning our Grief Into Action for Peace.

Before September 11, 2001, David Potorti spent his time studying for a graduate degree in folklore and helping care for his young son. But when his older brother was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center, another cause took over much of David Portori's life. He became an activist working for peace. He voiced his feelings for the first time soon after the attacks, when he gave a newspaper interview.

"At the end I said we should seek justice for these attacks, but we shouldn't seek justice by causing death to other innocent families just like our own," said Mr. Potorti. "And so that was my first public statement about not wanting other family members to die. And in the weeks afterwards I discovered that there were lots of other families around the country who were saying the same thing."

David Potorti describes how those scattered voices came together in a book called September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows: Turning our Grief Into Action for Peace. The book also contains contributions from other members of the groupa group that includes liberals and conservatives, military veterans and long time pacifists. What unites them, says David Potorti, is a commitment to finding effective non-violent responses to terrorism.

"There are obviously other ways of dealing with the world - diplomatic ways, sharing of intelligence, the United Nations and so on. Force may sometimes be necessary, but I think it is equally important that we have strong relationships with other countries. We speak to school groups. We speak to church groups. We speak on panels and rallies. We also have spoken in 8 foreign countries," he said. "We've sent delegations to Afghanistan and to Iraq to meet with civilians, and to share our common needs with them. We've also entertained delegations from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, people who were in those cities when the atomic bombs dropped. We've met with a group called Israeli/Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace. And it is so helpful to us to recognize that we don't have to live in a world where everybody is afraid of each other." For Colleen Kelly, who also lost a brother at the World Trade Center, that meant traveling to Iraq with other members of Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. A nurse practitioner from New York City, she made the trip in January of 2003. During her stay she visited a civilian bomb shelter that was hit during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. It's been preserved as a monument:

"The debate still continues about whether that was a cover for military installations or whether it was in fact a civilian shelter. What is factual is that over 400 civilians were killed in that bombing. And what was difficult for me was how reminiscent meeting those families was of the days after September 11," said Ms. Kelly. "The Iraqi families carried pictures of their lost loved ones just as we here in New York City and around the country carried pictures of our lost loved ones. The twisted steel and concrete visible there inside the shelter was very reminiscent of the wreckage of the Trade Center. So there was a deep connection."

Families for Peaceful Tomorrows has provoked controversy in the United States. Their book includes e-mails they've received denouncing them as naďve and misguided. Colleen Kelly says her reaction depends on the tone of the letter. "If it's something that's really hateful, I don't bother to give it a second glance. But there are some people who are angry, but I feel like engaging in a dialogue sometimes with a person like that can produce really positive things," she said. "There are times when I've responded to some really angry and initially nasty e-mails. And not that we ended up agreeing, but at least we got to a point where we were able to see each others' viewpoint in a different way without being so angry or hate-filled about it."

Colleen Kelly has also met with interfaith groups around the United States. Raised a Roman Catholic, she's found unexpected new sources of comfort and support. "What was eye-opening for me was understanding the grieving process as it relates to traditions within other religions being part of a Balinese ceremony at Ground Zero. There was a purification ceremony there. And then meeting with the Buddhist church and celebrating and also mourning the whole cycle of life," she said. "So my mourning was still grounded very heavily in a Roman Catholic tradition, but there are all these other pieces of help that, if we're open to them, are very helpful also." David Potorti says he too has been comforted in ways he hadn't expected. That was especially true when he spoke at a Muslim American convention on the Fourth of July, American Independence Day.

"One of the people at this conference said, 'David, your brother is our brother, and we pray for his soul.' And he was referring to the 10,000 Muslims who were at this convention. In many ways it was one of the nicest things that anybody had said to me," he said. "And I would never have had the opportunity to hear that if I had not gone public and reached out to these other communities. So I think there's a lot of good to come from reaching out."

Organizing Families for Peaceful Tomorrows has come at a cost. David Potorti says the effort not only absorbs much of his time now, but means he's constantly confronted with reminders of the brother he lost. But both he and Colleen Kelly say they have a long-term commitment to promote peace, and call attention to the consequences of violence wherever it occurs around the world.