It is possible for people to behave well in a crisis. It is possible for people to maintain their dedication to good and kindness in the face of fear and horrific loss. The loved one of a murder victim can love and comfort the murderer. This fact is going to become ever more crucial to understand and demonstrate as the crises of a collapsing climate engulf us.
In 1943 six residents of Coventry, England, bombed by Germany, wrote a public letter condemning the bombing of German cities. Imagine if they — and what they asserted was the general view of their neighbors — had been listened to. We’ve had seven decades of endless revenge, including a particular new burst of it that began around September 12, 2001. But some have pushed back.
A new film called In Our Son’s Name provides a powerful example. Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez, whose story the film tells, published a letter shortly after September 11, 2001, that read:
“Our son Greg is among the many missing from the World Trade Center attack. Since we first heard the news, we have shared moments of grief, comfort, hope, despair, fond memories with his wife, the two families, our friends and neighbors, his loving colleagues at Cantor Fitzgerald/ESpeed, and all the grieving families that daily meet at the Pierre Hotel.
“We see our hurt and anger reflected among everybody we meet. We cannot pay attention to the daily flow of news about this disaster. But we read enough of the news to sense that our government is heading in the direction of violent revenge, with the prospect of sons, daughters, parents, friends in distant lands, dying, suffering, and nursing further grievances against us. It is not the way to go. It will not avenge our son’s death. Not in our son’s name.
“Our son died a victim of an inhuman ideology. Our actions should not serve the same purpose. Let us grieve. Let us reflect and pray. Let us think about a rational response that brings real peace and justice to our world. But let us not as a nation add to the inhumanity of our times.”
That was their immediate response when it mattered, and of course it ought to have been heeded. Orlando Rodriguez taught a course on terrorism at Fordham University after the death of his son, trying to reach at least a small number of people drowning in the sea of patriotism and militarism.
Phyllis Rodriguez wanted to meet Aicha el-Wafi, the suffering mother of the indicted Zacarias Moussaoui; and when they met they helped each other through their grief. Phyllis comforted Aicha during her son’s trial, at which Orlando and a dozen others testified for the defense.
“Our son’s life is not worth more than her son’s life,” said Phyllis, articulating both an obvious truth and an idea that millions of people would find incomprehensible, due to the power of nationalism and hatred.
The Rodriguezes began speaking publicly. Phyllis and Aicha spoke at events together.
Zacarias Moussaoui was reportedly amazed that any American would speak up for him. If he were to meet with and get to know people like Orlando and Phyllis he might come to oppose the ideology he had embraced. But that might not happen any time soon. He’s locked away for life, and the judge reportedly told him as he left court that he would “die with a whimper” and “never get a chance to speak again.”
As a substitute for meeting with people responsible for their son’s death, the Rodriguezes met at Sing Sing prison with five men convicted of kidnapping and murder. The men expressed their desire to meet with their victims and apologize, something they are denied the right to do. They also expressed the need to tell their stories and have someone listen. Phyllis and Orlando understood this perfectly, going into the meeting with the belief that while they had had ample opportunity to tell their story, these men hadn’t.
Orlando said the meeting with prisoners helped release some of his anger. He began teaching in prison, wishing he could teach the people who killed his son, wishing he could teach them not to do it. Of course that’s not really possible, but we can collectively compel the U.S. government to end policies that “create further grievances against us.”
What if every dead child were, in some sense, our son or daughter? Can we allow ourselves to think like that? Can we understand the grief and pain? Can we respond collectively with the wisdom and magnanimity that we long to see and occasionally do see in individuals.
Here’s a way to start. Buy a giant popcorn to share and show In Our Son’s Name to everyone you can.