With the passing of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, another 10th year commemoration is upon us: the war in Afghanistan. It is a somber reminder that the United States has been caught in a cycle of retribution that is likely to extend long into the coming decade. At the local level in New York City, this cycle of blame and vengeance has emerged in the form of controversies over the building of new mosques, the vilification of Muslims and law enforcement's ongoing surveillance of Muslim communities. As an American, and as a Muslim, I have found my antidote in strategies and programs that present an alternative to this vilification, a third way toward peace-building and reconciliation.
Prepare New York, launched by several interfaith organizations in New York City is one such initiative, working to strengthen the fabric of New York City and foster respect for religious pluralism. To help break away from the cycle of violence and blame that prevailed last summer around the "Ground Zero Mosque," Prepare NY brings together communities for conversations about the trauma of 9/11, resilience and religious pluralism to create an alternative narrative that builds cohesion and trust rather than exacerbates divides. Through this program, I've learned the stories of many inspiring individuals who have been working steadily to build understanding and foster healing, who have persisted in their heroic work outside the media limelight.
Among them is Megan Bartlett, a first responder and EMT who served at Ground Zero. She spoke recently at the New York Open Center about how she smelled bodies and buildings burning and one of her first thoughts was about how this smell of war and death was familiar to so many people in the world, how fortunate we were as a nation to have avoided that experience over so many years, and that "no one anywhere should have to smell that smell again." On the first day, she lost 24 pounds of water due to the immense heat in the area, and when she arrived at home, her sister could see through the skin on her neck. As Megan continued to help at Ground Zero, she began to think about first responders around the world who have been doing the same work in their own war zones and created an organization called Ground Zero for Peace, an organization of first responders against war. When the United States attacked Afghanistan, she, along with a few others wrote letters to first responders in Afghanistan. She courageously stood up to people who called her disloyal; one male colleague even punched her for suggesting that the U.S. should wait before it killed innocent civilians. Megan ultimately travelled to Afghanistan to meet with first responders and learn first-hand about the impact of the war on the country and its people.
Like Megan, Scott Gassman chose a path of community building. On 9/11, he worked at Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, on the 23rd floor of Tower One. Scott used his facilitation skills to help people stay calm and navigate their way out of the building; he shared the gripping story of a colleague who refused to leave his quadriplegic friend behind, knowing that both of them would die. Eventually, Scott founded Idea Juice, a firm that offers leadership, team building and mediation training. He has participated in initiatives of 9/11 Community for Common Ground, an organization that rejects the cycle of violence and fosters interactions between the diverse religious and cultural groups in New York City.
Ruth Yoder Wenger is a Mennonite pastor based in the Bronx who helped train religious leaders in disaster response and conflict transformation. When some community members sought to boycott local delis that were owned by Arabs and Muslims, community leaders were able to diffuse the tensions by creating supportive space for diverse community members to talk honestly and cope with their raw emotions after 9/11. Ruth's work is based on the principle that religious leaders have a critical role to play in preventing additional conflicts that may erupt in the aftermath of a disaster or traumatic experience.
Father Mychal Judge, a Franciscan friar who served as the Fire Department Chaplain and whose death is the first recorded in New York City on 9/11, had a prayer: "Lord, take me where you want me to go; let me meet who you want me to meet; tell me what you want me to say, and keep me out of your way."
The hardest thing in a violent conflict is to refuse to act out of vengeance, to put aside anger that is legitimate and to actively choose to bring into light our better nature. Megan Bartlett, Scott Gassman and Ruth Wenger show us that it is possible to step out of the cycle of violence by connecting with the humanity of those who could otherwise be seen as enemies.