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Howard Zinn’s Mirror

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.

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.


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