I had just walked into the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) in New York City on September 11, 2001, when the news of the attacks on the World Trade Center began breaking through my Walkman headphones.
It was a few years after I had served as a young adult staff member with FCNL. I was working at QUNO on a new program focused on preventing armed conflict and advancing international policies that could help prevent violent conflict and war. The work was promising and had gained attention throughout the U.N. and in Washington.
Simply and clearly, we said, “war is not the answer.”
9/11 changed that. Now, 21 years later, the world still struggles to recover from the tragedy and its aftermath.
More than two decades since the attacks, our individual and collective mourning continues. For those who lost loved ones, lived through the attacks, or were part of the response efforts, the trauma and pain are ever-present. For people around the world – particularly the Muslim community and others who were targeted after 9/11 or were swept up in the War on Terror – the ripple effects of the attacks and the U.S. response compound the suffering.
For all of us, life was forever changed.
My children, now 11 and 14, have only ever known the United States at war. They have never traveled through airports without metal detectors. They have grown up surrounded by the assumption that military action was the only possible response to 9/11.
But there were other options. On September 12, 2001, FCNL issued a statement urging accountability under international law and cautioning against actions that would ignite additional violence, fuel anti-Muslim sentiment, and lead to more suffering. Simply and clearly, we said, “war is not the answer.”
Sadly, the U.S. government did not heed the concerns that we and others raised about responding to violence with violence.
Sadly, the U.S. government did not heed the concerns that we and others raised about responding to violence with violence. The administration and Congress opted for endless, boundless war that has increased the very threats it claims to thwart, led to more death and devastation for communities around the world, and undermined our democracy and civil liberties.
I vividly remember huddling with other staff at Quaker House after evacuating our office and watching on TV as the towers collapsed just a few miles south of us. Tearfully, one of the directors said what we were all feeling at the time: “All those people.”
Over the coming months, we would collaborate with other Quaker organizations, particularly FCNL, to grapple with how our Peace Testimony called us to respond to the attacks, and later, to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and the launch of the global War on Terror. Work on preventing armed conflict at the international level and with U.S. policymakers was overtaken – at least temporarily – by escalating militarized policies and retractions on longstanding humanitarian law.
At the time of the attacks, I had been collaborating with FCNL staff to plan a consultation on preventing war with an international network of Quaker peace organizations, including colleagues from African countries involved in frontline peacebuilding in some of the longest and most deadly wars in the world. We wondered if we should go ahead with the gathering, planned for the following month in New York and D.C.
Thankfully, we did, recognizing that while the experience of a direct attack on our country was new for most Americans, many people around the world – and in marginalized communities in our own country – lived with the realities of violence and fear every day. I recall our African Quaker colleagues ministering to us on the importance of our Peace Testimony amid war and the peacebuilding work that would be imperative moving forward.
As resounding as our evergreen message is that war is not the answer, we realized we must also respond to the question, then what is?
The attacks of 9/11 brought me back to FCNL as a lobbyist and shaped much of my work on peacebuilding. A renewed sense of responsibility as a U.S. peace advocate and an opening on the foreign policy team led me to Washington to lobby and help develop our program on peaceful prevention of deadly conflict, the precursor to our current Peacebuilding program.
As resounding as our evergreen message is that war is not the answer, we realized we must also respond to the question, then what is? After more than two decades of the War on Terror, we continue lobbying Congress to invest in more effective and less costly peacebuilding approaches and to end endless wars. We know peace is possible if you prioritize it .
I am honored to again be part of this work as General Secretary. Last year, for the first time, I visited the 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan. Approaching the enormous monument that covers the footprint where the twin towers stood, you can feel the pain and loss freshly again, as water pours steadily down into the ground. I was surprised to be moved to tears so easily after so many years.
You also feel the resilience – that remarkable human ability to carry on through tragedy, to find hope again, to know that love conquers hate. A tree, salvaged somehow from the rubble after the attacks, is replanted at the memorial. It stands strong and beautiful; its branches having grown again to reach up toward what is yet to come.