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2006-09-08

Civilian Casualties, Civilian Solutions: Family Members of 9/11 Victims Spearhead Movement Against War and Violence

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David Potorti lost his brother, James, at the World Trade Center on September 11th. Shortly after the attacks, David joined with other family members of those killed to form a group that called for peace. As President Bush announced his war on terror, they advocated for non-violence. [includes rush transcript]

As we continue our coverage of the fifth anniversary of 9/11, we are joined now by David Potorti. His brother James died at the World Trade Center.

Shortly after the attacks, David joined with other family members of those killed to form a group that called for peace. As President Bush announced his war on terror, they advocated for non-violence.

They called their organization Sept. 11 Families For Peaceful Tomorrows. David Potorti is now the group’s director.

  • David Potorti, he lost his brother James at the World Trade Center on 9/11. He is the director of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by David Potorti. His brother James died at the World Trade Center. Shortly after the attacks, David joined with other families, members who had lost their families, to form a group that called for peace. As President Bush announced his war on terror, they advocated for nonviolence and called their group September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. David Potorti is now the group’s director. We welcome you to Democracy Now!.

DAVID POTORTI: Thank you. Thanks, Amy and Juan.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you go back five years and talk about that day? Where were you? Where was your brother?

DAVID POTORTI: I was living in Cary, North Carolina, which very strangely was, I think, the headquarters of American Airlines, and the first phone call from one of the flight attendants came to their headquarters where I lived. And my story is probably very similar to everybody else’s story. You know, got a call from, I think, my mom, because my sister-in-law had called her. I was sitting on the edge of the couch, turned on the TV and just saw that horrible scene that everybody had seen of the World Trade Center. And I knew that my brother worked on the — you know, one of the upper floors of the North Tower. I didn’t know the exact floor, but it turned out to be the 94th floor, and that was the direct hit by the first plane, which took out about 300 of his fellow employees.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did he work?

DAVID POTORTI: Marsh & McLennan, which is a, you know, multi-national insurance company. So they were — they were just gone, so we didn’t get a phone call from Jim and didn’t really figure out until that Friday that we wouldn’t be hearing from him, so that’s really when our mourning began, just a few days later. And after that, because I was already working for a newspaper and doing commentaries occasionally for Pacifica, I had this sort of platform to talk about my opposition to our government’s response, because from the very beginning, I just knew, looking at my parents, who are still alive, and seeing how they were suffering from this, I said, "I don’t want anybody else to have to go through this. And how can we use a smart response, a sensible response that does not result in the deaths of other innocent people? And obviously, we’ve got to get the people that did this in some way, but let’s be smart about it."

And as a result of putting things out on the internet, some other families got in touch with me. Also heard from Kathy Kelly, who you know from Voices in the Wilderness, and she was organizing a peace walk from the Pentagon to the World Trade Center in November of 2001. And a bunch of us, maybe about five of us, did this symbolic peace walk, and you had us on when we arrived in New York, November of 2001, and talked about it.

AMY GOODMAN: I remember that moment. You were there with Amber Amundson, right?

DAVID POTORTI: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: Who had lost her husband.

DAVID POTORTI: At the Pentagon.

AMY GOODMAN: At the Pentagon, and I remember this famous picture in the New York Times of all of you at Union Square, and Amber was wrapped in the American flag. And I can’t remember exactly what the caption on the picture was, but it made it look like it fit — that you were all part of a group that were calling for some kind of — or supporting the U.S. government in supporting for an attack.

DAVID POTORTI: Well, she was a grieving widow, and I was a grieving brother, and that’s pretty much it. And we just did a walk from, you know —- I don’t even know if they mentioned the walk. But it was just like, here are some grieving people standing in Union Square Park and we were all carrying -—

AMY GOODMAN: Wrapped in the American flag.

DAVID POTORTI: Wrapped in the American flag, and we were all carrying signs that say, "No War in Afghanistan!" You know, "Stop the Bombing!" And they just cropped all of them out, so it was just the two of us, you know, grieving. And that was our first experience of the media covering us, but not really covering us. You know, they covered us, but they didn’t say the context of why we had arrived there, so that gave us a taste of what was in store.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And as you began to bring together your group, obviously there were several organizations that developed out of the families of the victims of the attacks. What was the reaction or interaction that you had with some of the other families that were grieving, as well, over the positions that you took?

DAVID POTORTI: Well, all the 9/11 groups, we support all of them, and they all have their particular niche. Some of them are about compensation for, you know, families of firefighters, redevelopment of Ground Zero, what’s going to go there. We are really the only ones that are involved in kind of the political end of it, talking about U.S. foreign policy and how we can change that and make that better, and so we kind of all coexist, you know. We support each other’s work. We certainly support the work of all the other families. We’ve never really told anybody that they don’t have a right to respond the way that they want to, so we’re happy to allow people to respond however they want.

AMY GOODMAN: How much media attention do you get when you go from description, describing your loved ones lost at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, to prescription, what should happen?

DAVID POTORTI: Well, most of the media we get is from overseas, strangely enough. Everyone’s fascinated with us. Even people in China have written about us as being, you know, "Look, this is what Americans do. This is part of the American character, you know. They’re marching." But we find in the United States, they’re really just interested in kind of the human, you know, the human element. "Tell us your story of grief and woe." And they really don’t want us to talk about the prescriptive part, as you describe it, and how we can actually change things and make things better. And that’s really still the case nowadays. It’s very hard to get coverage of our actual message in this country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And when you see what’s happened in this country over the past five years in the name of fighting the war on terror, that really was sparked by 9/11, your sense of what’s happening to the country?

DAVID POTORTI: Well, I’m just terrifically sad at what’s happened. It just — the fact that this is still being done in my brother’s name and in the names of all these other people who died, it’s just terrifically sad and anger-producing for me, that so many people in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in you know, Lebanon and Israel, or the Middle East, all of these civilian casualties are just growing and growing and growing out of September 11th. And we were talking about exactly this thing happening after 9/11. And that’s why we were saying we had to be smart and think about our foreign policies and go back to the — we talk a lot about the post-9/11 world. The post-9/11 world that I like is the couple of days after 9/11 when the whole world came together and said, "Let’s stand in solidarity." That’s the post 9/11 world that I want to go back to, not the one that I currently live in.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But now, you’ve also — your group now has begun to meet on an international level with other groups of families who have suffered through tragedies. Could you talk about that?

DAVID POTORTI: Yeah, we just spent four days up at the Garrison Institute, which is a retreat center just north of New York City. And we’ve really kind of come full circle with Peaceful Tomorrows. Right after we announced our group, we began hearing from groups around the world, like, I think Yitzhak Frankenthal with the Parent Circle. It’s a group of Israeli and Palestinian parents who are trying to create peace. They have all lost their children. We were getting emails from a woman named Jo Berry, who I think was on your show. Her father was killed by an IRA bomber and she managed to meet with his murderer and to kind of reconcile with him and try to understand him. We heard from the Hibakusha, who are the wonderful Japanese survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who just work tirelessly to end nuclear war and nuclear weapons. All these people started writing to us and said, "We really support you. We really want to lend our help and just our moral support to you." And that just went on and on. We heard from Father Lapsley in South Africa with the Institute for Healing of Memories. One of our members went and attended a Healing of Memories workshop on the tenth anniversary of Apartheid.

AMY GOODMAN: And Father Lapsley, who we’ve had on Democracy Now! a number of times, had his hands blown off —

DAVID POTORTI: Right

AMY GOODMAN: — lost his eye when the — as being part of the ANC in the anti-Apartheid movement, was sent a letter bomb.

DAVID POTORTI: Right, right. So all these people reached out to us, and as this went on and on, we said, wouldn’t it be great — you know, we would go to their countries and speak and learn about all their wonderful work. And we said, "Wouldn’t be it great if we could bring all of those people here to the United States and expose the American people to the fact that there are alternatives to war that we don’t hear about." All we hear about is, "We’ve got to drop more bombs. We’ve got to kill every terrorist." And that’s never going to happen.

So, we actually, yesterday, did like a mission statement for this new organization. And I can tell you about just a couple of the people that came. We had Olga Takaeva from Russia. She’s a member of the Mothers of Beslan. We just commemorated the Beslan tragedy a couple of days ago. She was present during that tragedy.

AMY GOODMAN: Hundreds of kids killed.

DAVID POTORTI: Right, so now she works to help in recovery efforts, in terms of their psychologies, and helps them to get into schools, you know, the people that were left and affected by that tragedy.

We had Asma Guenifi. She has a group in Algeria called Group Hichem, and her brother was murdered by Islamic terrorists, and she was then threatened with death, because she would not wear the hijab, or the headgear. So she had to move to France, and she started a group against fundamentalism.

Beatriz Abril and Jesus Abril are from Madrid, and he lost his son in the Madrid train bombing, and they started a group called the 11-M, a group to seek truth and justice about the attacks, you know, who caused the attacks, which were originally blamed on the Basque separatist group, ETA.

Viviana Mantragola is from Italy, and she has a group called the Libera Association. Her mother was a politician in Italy, and she was murdered by the Mafia because she was trying to save a public park from being developed by real estate guys. The Mafia killed her, so her daughter has started a new group, which lobbies for laws which confiscate Mafia lands and convert them to public use. So they turn Mafia lands into parks or into gardens.

So all of these people with their groups came together in Garrison. Pete Seeger came up and played for us. It was just wonderful. And we all met and talked about, how can we stay in touch with each other? How can we amplify each other’s work? How can we share their work with Americans and the rest of the world and kind of build on what we’re doing?

And what’s really unique about this new group, which is as yet unnamed because we just did our mission statement, is that we are — all of its members were directly affected by terrorism, violence and war. Some of them were actually in terrorist attacks. Febby Isran came from Indonesia, and he was injured in the Jakarta Marriott bombing in, I think, 2003, and was disfigured, you know, burned. His hands were disfigured, and he started a group called Forum 58, and they support terrorism survivors in — like the people from Bali and other people in Indonesia.

AMY GOODMAN: Rwanda?

DAVID POTORTI: Rwanda, we had a couple of — Jean Baptiste Ntakirutimana and Father Romain Rurangirwa, both from Rwanda. Both of them lost extended members of their family, I mean, in some cases, dozens of members of their extended family in the Rwandan massacre. Father Romain is now a Roman Catholic priest. Jean Baptiste has a group called Orphans of Rwanda and they try to support the survivors.

But to meet these people and just see how they have managed to carry on — I mean, they are so similar to us. They have just dedicated their lives to a peaceful resolution of conflict. It was so inspiring for us, and those are the people that really keep us going. That’s why we want to share them with Americans, because we think their stories will keep Americans going, too, and give them hope.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your hope now is to begin publicizing the group or to promote the idea of social peace and change coming from the activity of citizens themselves?

DAVID POTORTI: Right, from the grassroots. Right, absolutely. Can I read you our quickie mission statement? We literally wrote this yesterday. This is the first time it has ever been read. May I read it to you?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: Okay, folks, a Democracy Now! exclusive: David Potorti reading the mission statement of this new international gathering, dealing with civilian casualties, civilian solutions.

DAVID POTORTI: Right. "We are a global network of organizations comprised of people who lost loved ones to or were directly affected by war, nuclear weapons, terrorism, genocide, organized crime and political violence. We work together to break the cycles of violence and revenge and are committed to honoring the memories of the victims and to the dignity of the survivors. "Using our collective experience and skills, we are dedicated to identifying and addressing the root causes of violence and to promoting nonviolence as the most effective strategy for resolving conflict. We pledge to support and amplify each other’s efforts across diverse communities, recognizing that we derive our strength from our common experience of loss and our common hope for a world free from violence."

AMY GOODMAN: Well, if people want to get in touch with you, the website?

DAVID POTORTI: Peacefultomorrows.org. We’re doing maybe 14 or 15 panel events in the New York City area with all of our wonderful international guests. I’m going to head over to NYU right after this and introduce a panel with Jody Williams, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, for her campaign to ban landmines, and we have Phil Donahue hosting a panel with us, Peter Yarrow playing at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on Saturday night. And we’ll try to post write-ups about all of these things for these people that aren’t in New York. We’ll try to post that on our website, what went on there and what was said.

AMY GOODMAN: And we hope that some of you will join us at some point on Monday night. Democracy Now! is celebrating its tenth anniversary bringing out voices of peace and resistance at Cooper Union, and I do want to encourage people who live in this area to come on out in Lower Manhattan. You can go to our website, democracynow.org, for more details on September 11th. And, David, in the midst of all of this, in the organizing you have done over the last five years and the grief for your brother and the celebration of life that you, I think, very much embody, you wrote the book September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, in front of you, under the framed picture of your brother — many different languages, it’s been published in.

DAVID POTORTI: Yeah, it’s been trans— You know, this is the original book. We have it in Japanese, which is just a lovely book. We have it in Italian. We have it in Spanish. And it’s just so great to know that, you know, our small sort of words are out in the world and being read by other people. It’s very empowering.

AMY GOODMAN: David Potorti, thank you for joining us.

DAVID POTORTI: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to turn now, before we go to Arun Ghandi, to another of your members of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. We first talked to Rita Lasar years ago when she lost her brother. And in the coming weeks, we’re going to go to her to talk about what she did. In addition to being a part of this organization, she went to Afghanistan and talked about the similarity in the rubble she saw there and the rubble that she saw at the World Trade Center.

But for a final moment, I wanted to get your response to President Bush. On Monday, he admitted the Iraq war is straining the psyche of our country, but vowed to stay the course. A reporter questioned him about why he opposed withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

REPORTER: A lot of the consequences you mentioned for pulling out seem like maybe they never would have been there if we hadn’t gone in. How do you square all of that?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I square it, because — imagine a world in which you had Saddam Hussein who had the capacity to make a weapon of mass destruction, who was paying suiciders to kill innocent life, who would — who had relations with Zarqawi. Imagine what the world would be like with him in power. The idea is to try to help change the Middle East.

Now, look, I didn’t — part of the reason we went into Iraq was — the main reason we went into Iraq at the time was we thought he had weapons of mass destruction. It turns out he didn’t, but he had the capacity to make weapons of mass destruction. But I also talked about the human suffering in Iraq, and I also talked the need to advance a freedom agenda. And so my question — my answer to your question is, is that — imagine a world in which Saddam Hussein was there, stirring up even more trouble in a part of the world that had so much resentment and so much hatred that people came and killed 3,000 of our citizens.

You know, I’ve heard this theory about, you know, everything was just fine until we arrived, and then, you know, kind of that we’re going to stir up the hornet’s nest theory. It just — just doesn’t hold water, as far as I’m concerned. The terrorists attacked us and killed 3,000 of our citizens before we started the freedom agenda in the Middle East.

REPORTER: What did Iraq have to do with that?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: What did Iraq have to do with what?

REPORTER: The attack on the World Trade Center?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Nothing, except for it’s part of — and nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack. Iraq was a — Iraq — the lesson of September the 11th is, take threats before they fully materialize, Ken. Nobody has ever suggested that the attacks of September the 11th were ordered by Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush in August. David Potorti, your response?

DAVID POTORTI: Well, the problem with propaganda is that it’s quite boring and predictable, and this is just propaganda. You know, we’ve heard all this before. And I’m really quite tired of hearing 9/11 invoked for the Bush agenda. And I think the people we need to be listening to are the people of Iraq, when it comes to whether it’s time for us to leave Iraq. And the people of Iraq want us to leave Iraq. They want us to set a timetable, and if we’re talking about democracy, let’s listen to the people of Iraq, and they want us out of there. And I think that’s what we should do.

AMY GOODMAN: David Potorti, thanks for joining us.

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