International Meeting

2002 World Conference against A & H Bombs

Rita Lasar

September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows


(speech #4)

Dear Friends:

I want to thank you for inviting me to come to this conference. I want to thank you for your condolences to me and my family for the loss of my brother Avrame in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.

I believe that many of you know of my brother's story. When the plane hit the North Tower, he refused to join the evacuation because he was concerned for the safety of his close friend and fellow-worker, a quadriplegic who could not easily leave. And so Avrame stayed, hoping that help would arrive. When it didn't, he and his associate died together, along with thousands of others innocent New Yorkers, as both buildings collapsed in flames.

That is the story. It is a story that changed my life and the lives of thousands of people throughout Greater New York. It changed the lives of the hijacked charter flight that crashed in Pennsylvania. It changed the lives of hundreds of families who lost loved ones in the Pentagon. And it changed the lives of most people living in the United States.

But in American news media, I often heard in the months following the disaster that the horrible events of September 11th changed the world. It may surprise you to hear this, but I don't think that they changed the world. And to the extent that Americans believe that 911-as we call it-changed the world, it is because they don't know much about the world in which they live.

I did not hear my news media say, for example, that the horrific massacres of 1994 in Rwanda in Central Africa changed the world. Who knows the number of people that died in that frenzy of butchery? I read 200,000 in some books, 1 million in others. Were these people less important than my dear brother? Why did Rwanda, vastly more catastrophic in numbers than September 11th, not change the world?

I did not read in American newspapers that the wars, massacres, and military intervention by the western powers in the former Yugoslavia changed the world. Or that Indonesia's massacre of 200,000 East Timorese in 1975 changed the world. Or that the AIDS catastrophe, which experts now estimate will claim the lives of 60 million people over the next 20 years, has changed the world.

India and Pakistan stare angrily at each other, poised for war, loaded to the brim with nuclear weapons. A Pentagon study says that if they use them, 12 million people will die in a matter of days. Doesn't even the possibility of such a cataclysm change the world?

Despite my own personal grief, I must conclude that, in light of these far greater calamities of the past and future, September 11th did not change the world. What it did, in its own terrible way, was to invite me and my fellow Americans to join the world, which, as you know, is already a very troubled place. The question is whether we will accept that invitation.

George W. Bush, the President of my country clearly has no interest in so doing. He sees the world as a thing to be controlled and held at bay. He will not allow America to join or even cooperate with the International Criminal Court. After the United States refused to join the League of Nations in 1919, at least it cooperated with the League diplomatically and honored many of its collective decisions. But Mr. Bush won't even do that. Instead he demands exemption for the United States from any accountability to the Court in exchange for peacekeeping troops.

The President will not sign an international agreement-born in your country-that would alleviate global warming. He rails against his so-called "Axis of Evil": Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Yet like these countries he refuses to sign an international treaty that would ban land mines. I know the horror of land mines first hand. When I journeyed to Afghanistan earlier this year I saw old Soviet mines littered along the side of roads. I saw U.S. cluster bombs that resembled the food packets dropped for starving Afghan civilians. Children, I was told, often could not tell the difference.  A mother of two sons myself, I stood by the side of a cluster bomb-laden Afghan road and cried.

My President has withdrawn from the long standing Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the former Soviet Union. Then he and Russia's President Putin replaced it with an arms control deal that puts no limit on the number of nuclear weapons that can be kept in reserve. Does anyone take this agreement seriously? I can't imagine how they could. At a time when, in light of the India/Pakistan crisis, we desperately need real leadership on this issue, the heads of Russia and the United States offer the world little more than political theater.

The present United States government knows that most nations in the world are absolutely opposed to a U.S. invasion of Iraq. Yet the U.S. military plans such an event as we speak, and some American politicians say that it is all but inevitable.

The consequences of this attack are awful to consider. It would require hundreds of thousands of U.S. ground troops, confronting Saddam's highly centralized Republican Army, not the scattered forces of the Taliban and Al Queida in Afghanistan. And wouldn't Saddam lash out with missiles against his neighbors in a desperate retaliatory strike?  I am horrified at the risks the men and women who advise our president seem willing to take, and so completely against the tide of world opinion.

I suppose that I sound very frustrated to you. Indeed, I am. Never in my lifetime have I felt the United States to be so isolated politically and culturally as it is today.

As some of you know, I am a member of September 11th families for Peaceful Tomorrow's, an organization of close relatives of the victims of the Al Queida attacks on the U.S. Our group's mission is to seek effective nonviolent responses to terrorism, and to find things in common with all people similarly affected by violence throughout the world. By exploring peaceful options in our search for justice, we work to spare additional innocent families the suffering that we have already experienced-as well as to break the endless cycle of violence created by war.

One of our primary goals is to get our Congress to establish a compensation fund for the relatives of the many Afghan civilians who died in the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan. It has been an uphill battle ever since we started. In theory, various Congressmembers we meet say they support such a fund. In practice, however, they will not take the steps to make it a reality. In part, I think that they fear that their support for this proposal will somehow make them seem soft on terrorism. I also worry that they don't want to establish a victim's fund because then they'll have to assess the number of civilians who perished in our bombing campaign. It is one thing to say, with a regretful tone to your voice, that there are always innocent casualties in war. It is another to count them and face the moral consequences of your policies.

But we will not give up. Too much is at stake to give up. The world is far too dangerous a place to give up.

We Americans have a choice. We can conclude on the basis of the events of September 11th that we are alone, that we owe the world nothing, and that the world owes us everything. This is the assumption implicit in President Bush's "you're either with us or against us," stance. Or we can open our eyes and see the abundance of nonviolent opportunities for making the planet a safer place: international organizations, treaties, and, perhaps most important, protocols to redistribute wealth between the north and south.

I am 70 years old. I began my life as a child and a student. Then I became a wife and a mother. Then a businesswoman. Then a retiree living a comfortable life on the Lower East Side of New York.  Now I spend my time trying to get my fellow countrywomen and men to join the world community again. To trust again. To comprehend that there are millions of people out there, like you, who understand all too well the horror of September 11th, having experienced that horror yourselves on a far greater scale.

It is an uphill battle, but I have hope. I have a favor to ask of you. Please reach out to Americans when you can. Whether over the Internet, or while traveling, or at conferences like this, ask them to consider the alternatives to the Fortress America policies my country has chosen to pursue at present. Do not be confrontational about it. But do suggest to them that history did not begin on September 11th. Suggest as best you can that the collective tragedies of our time require collective solutions. That the enormous dangers that lie ahead cannot be faced by any of us alone.  That is my task, to help bring America back to the community of nations. I hope that you will make it yours as well. Your generous invitation here furthers my work and strengthens my spirit. I thank you for it.

3-My brother died in the World Trade Center on September 11th.  I am referred to here in my country as a survivor. I, rather think of myself as a witness. A witness to those who, in my brother's name have died in Afghanistan. When I realized that his death would be used to justify the deaths of other innocents it added to my grief immeasurably.

I was offered the opportunity to go to Afghanistan to meet the families who had been harmed by my countries violent response to the event of September 11th and there I met people who through no fault of their own became the bereaved and homeless and orphaned and widowed and desperate, in a country which had been at war for over 23 years.

I have been since my youth a pacifist, believing that there are ways to resolve conflict other than inflicting more harm and destruction by bombing.

A group of families who believe as I do and who did not wish for their loved ones to be the cause of more hurt founded Sept 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrow's. The phrase is taken from a speech Dr. Martin Luther KingJr., in 1967 protesting the incursion into Cambodia, in which he said "Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrow's."  We, in our grief and our sorrow still have the courage to speak out wherever we can against violence as a response to violence.

I am honored to be able to visit your country, the country that suffered the most horrendous violence the world has ever perpetrated. The model Japan exhibits to humanity of seeking peace where others seek its opposite is an inspiration to me. I hope, by my visit, to show that there are people in the US who are not inherently vengeance seekers, who are looking for peaceful ways to counteract the violent act.

. We recently met with a delegation from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, among whom were 7 survivors of the atomic bombing of their cities in 1945. Their grace and inner peace and dedication to nonviolence is something I will carry in my memory for the rest of my life. They visit cities all over the world, carrying with them a powerful message of peace. If they have the strength to do that, I will follow their example and do likewise.

Thank you for inviting me to come to the Mothers Congress and World Conference. It is my fervent hope that millions will join our voices and that someday the world will be rid of all nuclear weapons.