Nine years ago, when a group of 9/11 family members including me began speaking out against our nation's militaristic response to the September 11th attacks, it was a very different time. It was a fearful time, not just because we lost family at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and on Flight 93, but also because America had become a fearful place. One of the people who made that time considerably less scary was Howard Zinn.
I had little idea who Zinn was until November, 2001, when a friend suggested I attend a speech he was giving at Elon University in North Carolina. After securing the assignment with a local newspaper, I schooled myself in Zinn's writings, did the requisite phone interview and attended his speech, which was entitled, "Bringing Democracy Alive." I was a receptive audience for his message, and had my first experience of historian as rock star. The auditorium was packed, the mood was electric and lively, and Zinn adroitly responded to questions of all kinds, including one he must have heard a thousand times: "Why do you still live in the United States, if you criticize the things the United States has done?"
"I'm not criticizing the United States," Zinn replied. "I'm criticizing the government of the United States. Patriotism means that you support the principles of the government. To criticize the government is the most American thing you can do."
Those were important words to me, and came at a crucial time. Only two weeks later, I joined other 9/11 family members in "a walk for healing and peace" from the Pentagon to the site of the World Trade Center where my brother had died on 9/11. The anti-war walk was organized by Kathy Kelly, then of Voices in the Wilderness, and with the family members I met there we would go on to create an organization called September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.
After Zinn's speech at Elon, I handed him an envelope with some of the writing I had published since 9/11--an op-ed in Philadelphia, a first-person article in Durham, an anti-war quote I had made to the local newspaper running my brother's obituary. I was searching for some direction, some validation for my feelings. A poll taken in the days immediately after 9/11 showed that nearly half of Americans had misgivings about the bombing of Afghanistan if it would result in significant civilian casualties. I shared those sentiments, but as I watched the CNN graphics heralding "America's New War" and the bombing began, it became clear that I was going to part ways with the actions of my government. This was new territory for me, but Zinn's words proved to be a much-needed guiding light.
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In subsequent months and years, as members of our group spoke out against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and shared our desire to spare other innocent families the losses we had incurred that terrible day, Zinn took notice of what we were doing. He quoted some of us in his book, Terrorism and War, mentioned our work in his column in The Progressive, and even enshrined the words of 9/11 family members Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez and Rita Lasar in Voices of A People's History of the United States.
By acknowledging what we were doing, and putting it into the larger context of people's movements throughout American history, Zinn gave me the personal validation and direction that I had been looking for back at Elon. He made me realize that what we were doing was not un-American or unpatriotic, and for that matter was not even unique or new. Instead, we were participating in the highest calling of American citizens: To claim our authentic voice. To speak truth to power. To remember that the government is our invention, rather than the other way around.
It was a powerful realization, and one that I carry with me after Zinn's death last week.
Pete Fornatale wrote a book about Woodstock's 40th anniversary last year, and in it he quotes a guru at the time musing about the flower children who were swarming to the festival: "They are all searching for the necklace that's around their necks. Eventually they'll look in the mirror and see it."
It's easy to feel helpless about the feckless Obama, the reckless Supreme Court, and the ruthless corporate politics of our day, but Zinn continues to hold up a mirror to the power that we already possess to make change: the potency of our words, the strength of our convictions, and the long history of activism and resistance that is our birthright. The necklace is already around our necks, and it has always been. Perhaps the greatest thanks we can give to Howard Zinn is to see it--and to act.