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The NS Interview: Donna Marsh O’Connor, peace activist

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by Sophie Elmhirst
8 September 2011
The New Statesman

 

“I can’t believe I haven’t seen my daughter in ten years.”Image of Donna Marsh O'Connor

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 birth.

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, Guantánamo 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 ways shifted.

Show Editor’s Note »

For more information on the organization discussed in this interview, Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, and their incredibly great work, please see their website, PeacefulTomorrows.org.

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. Why?
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 capitalized 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 that.

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?

Absolutely.

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.

Defining Moments

  • 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 defense of a proposal to build an Islamic community centre near Ground Zero in New York