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Special Report

Peace activists stand against violence


As President George W. Bush and other national leaders spoke of declaring war against an enemy still unknown, Americans responded with shock, horror and anger to the Sept. 11 bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, icons of American financial and military might. Amid calls for retaliation and reprisals, however, peace groups across the country counseled restraint and nonviolence while reaching out to immigrant communities, donating blood for victims of the bombings, holding vigils and prayer services, and perhaps most important, offering a different perspective on the violence than that seen in the mainstream media.

Within the peace community, there was a range of responses. Fr. Daniel Berrigan, dean of the Catholic peace movement, refused to comment. “It’s all beyond words. I can’t talk to you. It’s too close,” he said.

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, auxiliary of Detroit and a longtime activist in peace and justice causes, said, “My hope is that we’ll find a way as a nation to look at this in a much broader perspective. We need to ask the question ‘Why?’ Why would anybody go to this extreme, to kill themselves and thousands of others?”

“When I begin to think about it, it reminds me of a slave rebellion … when people are so oppressed that they have nothing to lose by killing themselves,” he said.

Asked if Catholics might become targets of harassment if they make bold statements against retaliation, he replied, “Do you mean we should water down our words? I think not. If the religious community of the United States can’t come up with a different response than one of violence and war, we’ve betrayed our whole religious tradition.”

Other peace activists spoke at length and published condemnations, condolences and reflections. Expressions of sorrow, dismay, sympathy for the victims and their families were common. So, too, were calls for restraint and a concern that the United States might rush to judgment.

“We have deep, deep concerns about retribution and calls for violent responses and we’re beginning to put out the message that war is not the answer,” said Joe Gerson, Northeast program director of the American Friends Service Committee. “What we all deeply feel is that this is almost exclusively an attack on innocents, and attacking other innocents whether in this country or elsewhere doesn’t make it any better.”

Trinitarian Fr. Stan DeBow, director of the Office of Justice and Peace for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious spoke of the need to step back and use common sense in responding to the terrorist attacks. “It’s already being called a war, but a war against whom?” asked DeBow, the morning after the terrorist attacks. “Let’s be balanced. We do not know who has done this yet.”

As word filtered in later in the day that Osama Bin Laden might be involved in the bombings, DeBow emphasized that the United States must avoid demonizing an entire people because of the actions of one zealot or stereotyping people because of religion, ethnicity or ideology.

Concern about vengeance at home as well as abroad was also sounded by the interfaith peace group, Fellowship of Reconciliation. “Will we respond to what has happened with suspicion of our neighbors because of their ethnicity, dress, religion or culture? Will we compound the tragedy by taking out our anger on others?” the fellowship said in a statement.

Vengeance vs. justice

Pax Christi, the national Catholic peace movement, urged U.S. leaders to break the spiral of violence that many citizens may be quick to embrace. “Vengeance is not justice. The only kind of justice that will honor the memory of all those who lost their lives is a justice based on international law, not reckless retribution,” Pax Christi said in a statement.

Tom Cordaro, chairperson of the national council of Pax Christi USA, was one of many who said that for the United States to contribute to the cycle of violence by lashing out blindly would be counterproductive.

“I think the perpetrators need to be brought to justice,” Cordaro said. “But we have to distinguish between justice and violence. It disturbs me profoundly that President Bush says we will make no distinction between terrorists who commit such acts and those who harbor them. And yet distinctions must be made between the guilty and the innocent, between the perpetrators and the civilians who may surround them, between those who commit atrocities and those who may simply share their religion or political points of view. Justice must be targeted toward those who are guilty and must be done according to the rule of law. If at all possible, they (the culprits) should be apprehended and brought to stand trial, to be found guilty or innocent by proper authorities. This is what it means to live according to law. Vigilantism, whether it be by a superpower or individuals, is always wrong.

“Terrorism will end,” added Cordaro, “when all nations great and small adhere to and are accountable to international law. As long as the strong can lord it over the weak, terrorism will be the choice of the disenfranchised.”

Longtime peace activist Elizabeth McAlister, who lives at the Jonah House community in Baltimore and who has devoted much of her life to anti-war activities, said the attacks have exposed the vulnerability of a nation that spends billions of dollars in the name of defense and security.

Money for defense

“How many billions have we spent on the military to defend us? They can’t. How many billions have we spent on the [National Security Agency], CIA and FBI and they’re powerless, and they’ll remain that. We can spend double that. There is no security and there is no defense except the works of justice,” McAlister said.

If many in the peace community expressed sorrow and grief at the attacks, most also seemed unsurprised. Instead, they said, the bombings should cause Americans to look more deeply at the causes of the violence that has been brought home to them in such a devastating way.

“We can’t condone any act of violence no matter who carries it out, but we have to understand that because of our policies around the world, we are hated by many people for our acts of military intervention, economic policies and our support for dictatorships,” said Art Laffin, a member of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker community in Washington.

Laffin noted that his community holds a peace vigil every Monday morning outside the Pentagon, just a short distance from where a highjacked jetliner cut a swath in the west side of the building killing hundreds.

In New York Kathy Kelly, a member of Voices in the Wilderness, a Chicago organization working to end the economic sanctions on Iraq, was on the 37th day of a 40-day, liquids-only fast when the attacks occurred. Kelly and other fasters planned to break their fast on Sept. 14 with a meal of lentils and rice they would share with passersby at the corner across from the U.S. mission to the United Nations. Kelly said that after the attacks the focus of the fast changed to “breaking the cycle of violence.”

A frequent visitor to Iraq, Kelly recalled a family in Baghdad who welcomed a newborn into the world during the U.S. bombing in 1998 and named her Hofran, which means forgiveness. Rather than emphasizing national security, Kelly urged that Americans “forge bonds of compassion and understanding” with all peoples.

Roots of terrorism

In addition to advocating a measured, legal response to terrorism, peace advocates spoke of the need to change U.S. policies that feed terrorism.

Gerson at the American Friends Service Committee said, “I think it’s important that we think through in both a compassionate and rational way the multiple causes of this to ensure it doesn’t happen again, and I think that means looking at our military budget and our foreign policy and that is in no way meant to justify this attack. It’s terrible to see Palestinians celebrating this attack, but it’s understandable, given the U.S. financial and diplomatic support for the Israeli occupation, which has been a brutal experience for more than three generations of Palestinians.”

Arun Gandhi, director of the M.K.Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Memphis and grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, said the terrorist bombings should be a wake-up call for the peace community to work harder for peace and justice.

“We have to understand that nonviolence is not a strategy. Nonviolence is an attitude. It’s about cultivating an attitude of peace and nonviolence within yourself. Everybody’s response is that somebody is going to have to pay for this, and we’re going to smash them. But how many people are we going to smash? To get rid of Saddam Hussein, we bombed the whole nation, and so many men and women and children we killed, and we made the whole nation of Iraq into terrorists. A lot of innocent people are going to die because we want Osama bin Laden. This kind of response, a political response and a violent response, is not going to solve problems.”

Justice is a misunderstood concept, Gandhi said. Justice should not mean revenge but reformation, recognition that the other person is misguided and needs reform.

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org Patricia Lefevere, Patrick O’Neill and Claire Schaeffer-Duffy contributed to this story.

Related Web sites

The American Friends Service Committee
[ www.afsc.org ]

The Catholic Worker

Fellowship of Reconciliation

The M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence

Pax Christi USA
[ www.paxchristiusa.org ]

War Resisters

National Catholic Reporter, September 21, 2001 [corrected 10/05/2001]