Speaking out against violence

IssueJune - August 2002
Feature by Ryan Amundson

On 11 September Ryans brother was killed in the attack on the Pentagon - where he was an enlisted specialist in the US army working as a multimedia illustrator. On 14 February 2002 - along with representatives of several other victims families - Ryan launched the Peaceful Tomorrows organisation.

PN: How and why did you start Peaceful Tomorrows?
Ryan: The horror of violence was never real to me before by brother was killed on 11 September, leaving behind a wife and two young children. His death was not natural. It wasn't an accident. It never should have happened. I didn't know if Craig was dead or alive for a few days. While I agonised over this uncertainty, I also worried that more people would die. I feared another terrorist attack, but what I feared most was the US's impending retaliation. Something I've heard over and over again from others who lost loved ones on 11 September, is that they didn't want anyone anywhere to ever have to feel the same pain.

The most important lesson we could have learned from 11 September was that violence is unacceptable. I've often said that the greatest honour to my brother's life would be that his death would mark the end of our faith in violence. Unfortunately, that lesson was lost in the angry rhetoric spewing forth. Despite well intentioned efforts to honour those killed by displays of patriotism and assurances of revenge, I felt little was being done to pay real tribute. Speaking out against the continuation of violence is my way of honouring my brother. He drove to work at the Pentagon each day with a bumper sticker that read, “Visualise World Peace”. I want to do what I can to work toward that vision.

Although many people assume that all who lost loved ones want revenge, I know many who don't. After the planes hit, I drove to Washington, DC with my parents and stayed in a hotel contracted by the Department of Defense for families of Pentagon victims. I never heard anyone there talk about vengeance until a politician visited, assuring us that the government would “eliminate” those responsible. He also talked about extending accountability to entire countries. Some cheered but others shook their heads in disgust.

I was not certain what path the United States was going to take, but it became clear the day George W Bush visited the Pentagon for the first time after the attack. He said, “On the one hand I feel sad. On the other hand I feel angry, and it is that anger that will bring resolution.” I believe a peaceful world can only be built from our sadness.

Craig's wife Amber, my brother Barry, his partner Kelly, and I all felt an urgent call to speak out against the violence about to be unleashed in the name of those killed. We were not the only ones speaking out against continued violence. Slowly, a network of 11 September families from all across the country formed. We were already an activist group before we knew it.
PN: A lot of people outside peacenik or anti-capitalist circles wouldn't consider the US to be a particularly militarised society or militaristic country (compared to, say, Turkey or Afghanistan). Has your involvement with Peaceful Tomorrows changed and challenged your own ideas and perceptions about your community and country?
Ryan: I've recognised the prominent role of the military in US society for some time, but it was never as important as an issue as it is to me now. Neither did I consider myself a pacifist before 11 September. After what happened to my brother, I cannot bring myself to support more killing.

The United States spends more on its military than the next eleven countries combined, yet it did not protect us from the worst attack on the US this century by a small group of people with knives. There is something very fundamentally wrong, but we are continuing with business as usual by spending even more tax dollars on the military. President Bush is proposing to spend an extra 50 billion dollars. When that doesn't stop terrorism, will he propose another 100 billion? 200 billion? How long will it take to realise were heading in the wrong direction?

Many US citizens don't realise the extent of US militarisation because we don't see it here at home. Instead, the vast majority of our military force is extended across the world on over 800 bases. In fact, when planes started smashing into buildings on US soil, fighter jets from other countries came to patrol our own skies.

”Maintaining our national interest” is a phrase often used to justify our military involvement abroad. But relying on force to get what you want creates a very unstable situation. I think the benefits to the entire world, including the US, would be extraordinary if the US used half the money it spends on the military for purely humanitarian causes. Maybe then we would discover the interests of others are also in our own interest.
PN: Reading Peaceful Tomorrows' mission statement it sounds like you are an antimilitarist - or even pacifist - group (wanting to “seek effective nonviolent responses to terrorism” and “break the endless cycle of violence and retaliation engendered by war”). Do you or other members of the group identify as antimilitarists? What is your understanding of antimilitarism?
Ryan: I shy away from categorical labels, and I certainly wouldn't want to categorise Peaceful Tomorrows. One does not have to be a pacifist or an antimilitarist to understand that a military response to terrorism is not only ineffective, but also counter-productive.
PN: What do you think the US is trying to achieve with the “war on terror”? Where do you think we are (all) being taken?
Ryan: What people in the United States want is safety. They don't want to see any more planes smash into buildings, and they're terrified a small nuclear device may be weapon of choice for another attack. Some people also want revenge.

Fear and anger seem to be the main motivations driving the public. With that kind of climate, it is easy for leaders to do whatever they want. But the path we are heading down will not bring security. A priest in Pakistan said that stopping terrorists with military force is like “swatting flies with a sledgehammer”. There will be a lot of destruction, but the threat of terrorism will remain, justifying a war without end.
PN: What kind of nonviolent responses to terrorism would you and/or the group advocate?
Ryan: Catching the perpetrators of the 11 September attack is very important. However, a massive criminal investigation is more appropriate than waging war when it is a network of individuals, not an army, responsible for this crime against humanity.

Catching the individual perpetrators of the attack is important, but confronting the root causes of terrorism is essential to attaining real security. Unfortunately, this aspect of the “war on terrorism” isn't being discussed by our political leaders, perhaps because it is the most difficult to face.

First, we must understand the grievances, some very legitimate, of people in other countries and do what we can to address those grievances. Discontent is exploited by leaders, such as Osama bin Laden, who win power by turning discontent into hate and that hate into violence. The United States should no longer act in its own narrow self-interest without consideration for others, or more terrorist acts can be expected.

Second, we should refuse to support any country or group that does not promote democracy and human rights. Often, the dictators and thugs the US gives backing to end up turning against us. Examples include Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, and Osama bin Laden himself. Some of our current allies are not so wholesome either, such as Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. The divide between what the United States preaches and what it actually does causes a lot of suspicion about the US's motives.

These ideas are not completely inclusive. There are also many other measures we should be taking such as the ratification of certain treaties and a genuine effort at biological, chemical, and nuclear disarmament.
PN: Your brother Craig was killed in the attack on the Pentagon. While he worked as a graphic designer - rather than as a general or strategist - do you think he ever saw himself as a potential target?
Ryan: No, I don't think so. We were all very happy when he was assigned to the Pentagon because it would mean he would be closer to home and not likely to have to go to war. Who would have known that the central command post of a billion dollar-per-day war machine would be unable to protect itself from a group of kids with knives? The last thing he told his wife was not to worry, because he was “in the safest place in the world”.
PN: We have heard from several US activists that it is very hard to be campaigning for peace and against the militarist rhetoric and response to 11 September. Given your personal experience, how do critics deal with you? Are you also considered “the enemy within”, or does deference to your loss prevent or moderate such attacks?
Ryan: Early after September 11, speaking out against continued violence was very difficult. Often, when someone would suggest alternatives to war, they were countered with appeals such as “tell that to the victims families”, or “if you had lost a family member, you would feel different”. This would usually stop the debate.

Many war hawks considered themselves to be speaking on behalf of victims' families, so some of us felt the urge to speak for ourselves. Soon, it was clear that the hawks were more concerned with supporting their argument than having any genuine concern for the feelings of victims' families. In a letter to an editor, it was suggested that my oldest brother Barry, Craig's widow Amber, and I all be loaded into the bomb bay of a B-52 and dropped on targets in Afghanistan.

Despite all this, people who lost family members on September 11 are in a unique position to speak out against the inefficacy and immorality of the “war on terrorism”. Because we are the ones who have lost the most, people are more willing to listen and understand.
PN: The simple statement of “not in my name” has been used by several members of your group in response to the idea that the “war on terror” by the US (and others) is a reasonable response to your loss. Do you have contact with other 11 September families who are not part of Peaceful Tomorrows? If so, are they supportive, critical, or indifferent to your position and activities?
Ryan: When people in my family began speaking out in a big way, I expected a huge backlash from other victims' families. However, that hasn't happened yet. I still expect it to happen, but I hope it doesn't.

Within my own family, opinions run across the spectrum. However, we all respect one another's opinions and we don't let our differences get in the way of loving each other.

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