Special Issue - Nine Eleven

In the Wake of September 11

By Iris Graville

I was in a kayak September 11, paddling in the serene waters of Puget Sound with my husband and four friends. Just before launching our boats, a friend called with news of the plane crashes at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We phoned family to reassure and be reassured that everyone was where they were supposed to be. Subdued, we loaded a tent, sleeping bags, clothes, and food into our kayaks; we also carried confusion, fear, and guilt into the smooth-as-glass water, knowing others were in chaos.

We camped on Jones Island, soaking up the quiet, the beauty, and the perfection of nature. While nearly everyone else watched continuous television coverage of the assaults and their aftermath, I viewed rust-colored Madronas, sunsets painting the gentle waves orange-red, and starry nights. There was no evidence there of the panic swirling over the country. I’m grateful I was spared the visual images of the destruction; my imagination was vivid enough.

I’ve been to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, have walked the streets of New York City and Washington, D.C., and could picture those places now gone, damaged, or watched over constantly by armed guards. I envisioned the terror of the people in the buildings that were struck, the passengers on the planes, families waiting to hear about loved ones.

At home I could go days without listening to the news, but in that remote paradise, I frequently turned on the tiny radio I had stashed in a dry bag. I craved information, worried that in its fear and shock, our government would launch an immediate counter-attack. I expected at any time fighter planes from nearby Whidbey Naval Air Station would break the silence of the turquoise blanket above, in pursuit of an unknown enemy. Thankfully, the skies remained still.

The gentle currents and tides buffeting my kayak contrasted sharply with the turmoil in my head and heart. I am a Quaker and a pacifist. I believe disputes between nations should and can be settled peacefully. I oppose war or violence as a means to resolve differences. Such simple statements. Beliefs I have clung to for over twenty years but which I never questioned so much as in those first days knowing people just like me were snuffed out by airplanes-turned-weapons. Convictions tested by my fear that the region where I live, with its military posts, nuclear submarine bases, and metropolitan areas with soaring skyscrapers, might be targeted. Though my boat stayed upright through a few choppy channels, I wondered if my faith would ride out the whirlpool challenging my nonviolent stance.

I thank God that the natural response that brings us together in times of crisis wasn’t consumed in the fire and smoke of the terrorist acts. I’ve read and heard accounts of extraordinary courage, generosity, and kindness by people all around the world who reached out, in ways great and small. But now, months later, as war rages in Afghanistan, it’s easy for me to lose sight of the human capacity for compassion. Public opinion polls report we want our leaders to retaliate with the same kind of violence we still are reeling from. What an aptitude we have to justify our behaviors, to be inconsistent, to overlook the contradictions between our words and actions.

Questions about the future sneak into my dreams. What is being targeted for attacks today, tomorrow, next week, or next year? Will my twenty-year-old son, studying in India, return home safely? Will he have to convince a draft board of his conscientious objection to war? Will his twin sister, an international studies major, have the kind of courage her Quaker college demonstrated when it refused the FBI’s request for records of non-U.S. students? Will my children be safe if they work for peace? Do they, do I, have any other choice?

I take my questions to silent worship each Sunday. I seek guidance to live in and celebrate this moment right now. I know how fleeting life is – loved ones die; friends are diagnosed with cancer; phone calls bring tragic news of a teen suicide, a teen pregnancy, a fatal snowmobile crash. Still, I deny loss and death. Now, as the potential for unprecedented, widespread destruction looms, I discover how inept I am at coping with a new national vulnerability. My daily tasks continue, and my island home seems safe. But I am preoccupied with a sense of danger and stumble through my work of writing, paper arts, nursing consultation, laundry, cooking, and community service.

I’m not alone in my distraction. Suicide attacks, bombs dropping from the skies or exploding in pizza parlors, and gases or organisms released into the air are commonplace for many around the world. Like Francisco, a 25-year-old man I met last February while chaperoning a high school trip to Nicaragua. His childhood was terrorized by “Pataro Negro,” a U.S. spy plane that flew regularly over his Managua neighborhood at speeds causing sonic booms. Francisco grew up expecting bombs would follow that sound made by “the black bird” overhead. Today he is committed to the visions of fair land distribution, literacy, jobs, and health care depicted in the murals of the community center where he works.

I think of Juanito, a survivor of torture by the U.S.-supported Nicaraguan National Guard. He knows the difference between a people and their government and can make a place in his heart for Americans who worked on a clinic with him and other Hurricane Mitch survivors.

And Hortensia, a leader in a Mexican squatters’ community who knows each day she may once again be jailed. Still, she keeps on smiling and laughing and dancing when teens on Quaker service projects join her to build homes, businesses, and farms outside Tijuana. And there are millions more like them around the world who live each day refusing to be victims.

They are my examples as I look for ways to cope. They strengthen me to resist my perception of my own impotence. I raise my voice in dissent against the war through letters and e-mails to my elected representatives and a simple poster by my front door and on my car – NO WAR. I reach out to friends, family, and neighbors to bolster myself, and them, with the strength of the love and care that surround us. I try to replace fear with knowledge – about Islam, Afghanistan, the Taliban, and the history of U.S. involvement in the region. And I pray – for forgiveness for all of us, and wisdom and strength and courage to respond with love, to maintain hope, and to act in ways that promote peace.

© 2002 Iris Graville