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The Arlingon Advocate (Arlington, Mass.)

Portrait of an Activist

Andy Metzger

(Ann Ringwood/Wicked Local staff photographer)

ARLINGTON, Mass. - Terry Rockefeller was a peace activist long before her sister's death, on Sept. 11, 2001. The United States-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that followed the terrorist attacks on New York City moved Rockefeller to speak out in opposition, carrying the banner of peace.

She traveled and spoke, and though there were accomplishments, she felt ignored by the Bush administration. Now that's changed.

Rockefeller didn't want to let her sister's killers go free. She wanted an international criminal trial to bring them to justice. The two wars, Guantanamo Bay, enhanced interrogation techniques? Those have had the opposite effect, in Rockefeller's opinion.

"At this point, they can't have legal trials. That makes me furious," Rockefeller said.

Now, in the first days of the Obama presidency, Rockefeller said her message has a chance of being heard.

"For the first time in eight years, we actually have an administration that will listen to peace activists," said Rockefeller.

Rockefeller, 58, grew up in White Plains, N.Y., in a family of theater people. From there, Rockefeller went to Harvard University, and then Johns Hopkins, where she met her husband, Bill Harris, now a history professor at the University of New Hampshire. The two shared a belief in peace, and a resistance to the Vietnam War.

"The whole anti-war movement of the 1960s was a pretty big part of my life," said Rockefeller. When the couple moved to Arlington in 1982, they joined the local Amnesty International chapter, where Harris is now chairman. "It was an important way to get connected."

Rockefeller has stayed connected. She makes documentaries on subjects such as the Civil Rights movement and the labor movement. Research for her films has the added benefit of teaching Rockefeller about the ways people successfully organized to make changes.
"I spent an awful lot of time studying," Rockefeller said.

Rockefeller has not filmed the peace movement she is a part of, because she's to closely involved. But she has used other media spread her message of peace and justice.

"I could either be a victim of 9-11, or I could use the fact that I was fundamentally affected, to speak out for what I believed in," Rockefeller said.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Rockefeller was out in her car when the first plane hit the North Tower. She rushed home to watch the events unfold on television, with no idea that her sister would be anywhere near the disaster.

Laura, 41, was an actor and stage manager, living on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Unbeknownst to her sister, Laura had taken a gig running a business seminar at Windows on the World, a swanky restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower.

All that morning, as the attacks played out on television, Rockefeller tried to reach her younger sister by phone, but there was no answer. Then a friend of Laura's called back, and said Laura told her that she was supposed to run a seminar in the World Trade Center that day.

The first days after Laura's death were a swirl for Rockefeller, but then she remembers a feeling of peace, as though the world was coming together as one, to condemn the violence.

But then she heard about United States military action in Afghanistan, and her heart sank.

"If we choose revenge, if we choose war, there will be violence that spins out of control," Rockefeller remembers thinking. It would be "endless revenge."


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In January 2002, Rockefeller learned about four relatives of Sept. 11 victims who had traveled to war-torn Afghanistan. They had documented the violence of cluster bombs dropped on villages. That group organized as September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, and a few months later, Rockefeller joined them.

"We saw those people -- those innocent civilians in Afghanistan -- as our counterparts," Rockefeller said. She has the same empathy for the people living in Iraq.

As talk of war in Iraq heated up, Rockefeller traveled there with three others, in January 2003, to document the people living there and the aftermath of the Gulf War.

It was 10 years after the United States had pushed Iraq out of Kuwait, but the remnants of that conflict were everywhere, Rockefeller said. She visited a bomb shelter in Al Amiriyah, where a United States missile had veered off target, killing 400 people. She visited Basra, where oil from a sunken tanker bubbled crude oil into the river the area used for drinking water. She visited hospitals, and spoke to doctors who had trouble getting the supplies they needed because of strict sanctions.

When she returned to America, Rockefeller brought those images and stories to the public, lobbying Congress, speaking at colleges, and on television.

Three months later, missiles were raining down on Baghdad. The U.S. invasion had begun.

Now, almost six years after the war began, Rockefeller sees room for hope in Iraq.

Last August, Rockefeller returned to Iraq for a peace conference about an hour outside of Kirkuk, in Kurdistan. It was the first-ever national meeting of a coalition of peace groups throughout the country called La'Onf, which means non-violence in Arabic.

It was heartening to see the peace movement coming together in Iraq, Rockefeller said. She felt safe in the town she stayed in, going out to restaurants and the market. But she knew that violence still raged in nearby Kirkuk.

The big agenda item at that conference was ensuring peaceful, fair elections, so when reports this past week showed a peaceful Iraqi election process, Rockefeller was pleased. "I'm delighted," she said.

Last December, Rockefeller met with the defense lawyers for detainees held in Guantanamo, and gained enormous respect for their work. In January, Rockefeller went to New York City to represent Peaceful Tomorrows on the steering committee of United Peace and Justice.

Recently, Rockefeller has turned her attention to Afghanistan, and she wants to move the United States away from an escalated war there.

Peaceful Tomorrows has created a plan called "Afghanistan: Ending a Failed Military Strategy." In it, the group recommends an immediate end to military action, and a new focus on building infrastructure, and making Afghanis more self-reliant.

"Let's really, really test diplomacy," Rockefeller said.

Rockefeller has her own views on how to right the wrongs of those who may have been falsely imprisoned in Guantanamo and elsewhere. According to her, there should be a national truth commission to look into Bush administration practices, and any who have been wronged by the United States should be granted amends.

"I mean, that's what justice is, right?" Rockefeller said.

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