Thursday, September 8 2011 - Other Important News
The NS Interview: Donna Marsh O'Connor, peace activist
by Sophie Elmhirst
8 September 2011
The New Statesman
"I can't believe I haven't seen my daughter in ten
You lost your daughter in the attacks on the World Trade Center on
9/11. Does the tenth anniversary feel particularly painful?
You want people to remember the date for the right reason - that hate engenders
hideous things. Time heals in some ways, but I can't believe I haven't seen
her in ten years. I did an interview in New York City recently and came home
on the plane, and when the lights dimmed in the cabin, I lost it. I didn't want
to be on my own on a plane sobbing. I just kept thinking about the day of her
Do you remember 11 September 2001 clearly?
Of course. To be honest, I don't want to remember. It was absolutely exquisite:
the crispest, clearest, sunniest morning on the East Coast, warm and beautiful,
and sad because it was getting near the end of summer - but it was almost so
beautiful that it made you OK with that.
How did 9/11 transform the US?
From that moment, there was a decision on the part of the Bush administration
to give up the American way of life. In so many significant ways - the constitution,
the Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, military tribunals, torture, water- boarding,
Halliburton [oilfields], endless war.
Has your perception of your country changed?
I was raised on this heady idea that America had an ethical and moral standing
in the world. I loved America. I would go to assembly and sing "America
Is Beautiful", "The Star-Spangled Banner", "The Marine Anthem".
To find that at the centre of it was this horrible myth, or the crafting of
a lie . . . I don't know any more.
Since then, you've become an activist. Why?
I still cringe when people call me an activist. It had a resonance that you
were boringly committed to a cause at the expense of everything else in your
life. I taught writing and rhetoric in American public discourse. And then this
happened and suddenly everything I valued about this country in fundamental
What did you feel you had lost?
The freedom to speak about any issue and still be patriotic - suddenly there
were these subjects that could not be discussed. I think of 9/11 as a hideous
murder that was perhaps used as a political measure. It got made into something
much larger to keep us at war.
You have said you would never celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden.
I never could hate Bin Laden. When he decided to bomb embassies and the USS
Cole, and make 9/11 his project, he committed suicide. I make no apologies that
I see him as a human being. And a murderer - a mass murderer - but there are
other mass murderers who aren't held so accountable. Please don't misunderstand
me: I am not saying he should be forgiven - but there are people who capitalised
on 9/11 to commit even greater atrocities in this world.
How do you think President Obama has handled these issues?
Obama had the opportunity to drive home the cost of war, to talk honestly to
the American people about everything George Bush had left us. But his eye was
on his eight-year term as president. You are elected for one term, and you need
to serve that one term with integrity and dignity. In my mind, he has not done
Do you believe that Islamophobia is a growing problem in the US?
Absolutely. People have been set up as scapegoats. They were treated as war
criminals. If we give a bunch of zealots microphones as large as the one they've
given to Michele Bachmann, we will be fighting each other for a long time.
Is there anything that gives you hope?
I have lived my entire life as an optimist. But everything tells me this is
going to get worse before it turns back again. I fear for my children. I'm afraid
that things are going to play out in ways that are devastating. Like fires that
are natural and helpful because they burn everything off and allow things to
restart, it's the same with civilisation - we will probably burn ourselves off
until we grow up again.
Do you vote?
I assume not for the Republicans?
No. Locally, I have a lot of Republican friends; they're dear, compassionate
people. So, at the local level, I'd vote Republican, but nationally, when the
stakes are this high and the discourse is so fragmented, I have not voted Republican.
Is there anything you regret?
There are a lot of things I regret. Most of them have to do with that morning.
Is there a plan?
The world is very short on compassion. I'm going to continue to write and speak,
and hope that has a half-life.
Are we all doomed?
No. Something has to happen so that the ugly doesn't always have to win out.
The ugly has much more powerful physical weapons, but we have much more powerful
spiritual weapons and we just need to get them heard.
1950s Born in the Bronx, New York
1984 Begins teaching writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University
2001 Her pregnant daughter, Vanessa Lang Langer, dies in the 11 September attacks
2002 Helps found Peaceful Tomorrows, a network of relatives and friends of the
attack victims, calling for an end to war
2010 Speaks out in defence of a proposal to build an Islamic community centre
near Ground Zero in New York