The Slow Pace of Peace

This movement is barely moving.

Craig Amundson had a “Visualize World Peace” bumper sticker on his car. Nothing special, certainly not in Berkeley, but Craig didn’t live in Berkeley. He lived in Virginia and he worked at the Pentagon. On the morning of September 11 he was hard at work as a multimedia illustrator for the US Army when a fuel-laden passenger plane slammed into his building. Back in Oakland, Craig’s brother Barry Amundson and his partner Kelly Campbell watched helplessly, glued in horror to the television. Craig was among the dead.

Months later, the couple was still reeling, but determined to somehow honor Barry’s brother. Craig was the one with a “wicked sense of humor” who spent much of his childhood making off-color home movies about neighborhood kids with titles like My Visit to the Dentist. That sensibility led him to the film program at the University of Iowa. But a film degree doesn’t guarantee a livelihood, particularly for a young man destined to be a married father of two. He instead wound up in graphics, joining the Army in part, Barry says, to give his fledgling family some financial security. Craig was happy and secure at home and work, even cracking jokes about being “self-actualized,” his brother says.

Despite the uniform, Craig had been intensely concerned about peace issues. “He believed his role in the Army could further the cause of peace throughout the world,” his widow Amber Amundson wrote in a Chicago Tribune op-ed. And that was the spirit in which his survivors decided to memorialize him. “We knew there would be military action and civilian losses,” says Barry. “We knew he would not want others suffering, and that led us to want a response to Craig’s death that would prevent suffering to other people.”

That response was to start an organization called September 11 Families For Peaceful Tomorrows. Its purpose was to bring together victims’ families who wanted something other than revenge — to help people rather than bomb them into oblivion. “We came together out of a concern that the death of our loved ones might be used to justify the killing of other innocent people,” says Campbell, who quit her job to work with the group.

The couple, along with Craig’s widow, began reaching out to like-minded folk via Internet, telephone, and face-to-face meetings, eventually drafting a mission statement that declared: “We choose to spare additional families the suffering that we have already experienced — as well as to break the endless cycle of violence and retaliation engendered by war.”

“We knew,” Barry says, “that this would not exactly be the most popular stance.”

They were right. True, Campbell has not actively tried to recruit families who are opposed to the idea. Yet of the thousands that might have signed on, the group’s membership totals a mere thirty or so families, of whom only about half are actively speaking out against America’s heightened militarism.

Not that its founders aren’t trying. Members of Peaceful Tomorrows, which was officially christened on Valentine’s Day, sent President Bush a card with a meeting request, which was promptly turned down. But the group’s members had already been busy with speaking tours, media appearances, and trips to Afghanistan to visit victims of the US bombing campaign.

Some family members, including Campbell and Derrill Bodley of Stockton, who lost his only daughter on Flight 93, have been to Afghanistan twice — in January and again in June — on visits organized by San Francisco-based activist group Global Exchange. Their presence, says Campbell, prompted stories about American victims meeting their Afghan counterparts that gave reporters the opportunity to address civilian casualties of the US bombing campaign.

For Campbell, the greatest irony was the closeness she felt to the Afghan families. “In some ways, the most beautiful and horrible thing was that it was easier to talk to Afghans about what happened to my family than it is to talk to an American,” she says. “Everyone in Afghanistan they know has lost somebody to 23 years of violence and war. There was this instantaneous bond.”

It was on one of those tours that the idea of an Afghan Victims Relief fund was hatched. Campbell and others are proposing that the US government set aside a total of $20 million — less than a day’s tab for chasing bin Laden — to help bombstruck civilians rebuild their lives. “It is appropriate to have the government spend a fraction of those tax dollars in helping those that were hurt,” says Campbell. At the very least, she says, it would help diffuse anger against Americans: “If we are seen as people who don’t care about the lives of people in the rest of the world, it fuels the anger and hatred that leads to acts like September 11.”

Since returning home, Peaceful Tomorrows and Global Exchange have lobbied members of Congress, the State Department, and the National Security Council to set up an Afghan Victims Fund. It appears to be politically doomed. “Senate staff and state department staff agree with us that a victims’ fund is not only morally the right thing to do, but that it is in our strategic best interest as a nation trying to prevent more terrorist attacks,” Campbell says. “But the Department of Defense is against the idea, so it will not go anywhere.” Campbell asserts that one Global Exchange member was actually laughed at by defense officials for trying to set up a meeting on the issue.

Working together, the two groups have succeeded in getting forty members of Congress to sign a “Dear Colleague” letter in support of the fund. It notes that the United States has compensated other civilians affected by American military action: victims of the Chinese Embassy bombing in Yugoslavia; families of those killed when the Navy downed an Iranian passenger jet in 1988 and, more recently, when a US military jet clipped an Italian ski lift; and residents of the Panama neighborhoods devastated by the 1989 US invasion to oust Manuel Noriega.

The letter, from Idaho Republican James Leach and Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer, was cosigned by Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey, though neither Representative Nancy Pelosi nor senators Barbara Boxer or Dianne Feinstein have signed on.

The only real action to date was a July move by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy to put language in a supplemental appropriations bill urging the government to assist specific Afghan communities attacked by US forces. Estimated at no more than $10 million, those funds would be administered by the State Department in the form of direct foreign aid for specific projects — which would, as Jason Mark of Global Exchange puts it, “bring much-needed help to people in terms of irrigation systems, but it doesn’t get to the heart of helping all those affected by US bombing.” And, unfortunately, the language does not actually guarantee the money will be delivered.

And that’s been the extent of the legislature’s commitment, laments Medea Benjamin, founding director of Global Exchange. “We get a very positive reception, but then nothing comes if it,” she says. “It’s a hot potato issue because it goes against the wishes of the Pentagon, which does not want to acknowledge civilian casualties, much less take responsibility for them.”

In the first weeks of the war on terrorism, skeptics were afraid to speak out, and those who did got death threats for their troubles. Victims’ relatives who didn’t want a war in their name had to muck about online to find camaraderie. “I was looking hard, finding tons of stuff similar to what we felt, but on TV it was like Arnold Schwarzenegger: Revenge. Violence. Retribution. Resolution,” says Barry.

“Bush says through anger we will find resolution,” he adds. “That is a frightening foreign policy.”

But on speaking engagements from New York City to DC to Oregon, Campbell has found a surprisingly warm reception. In every case, she recalls, audiences have believed in America’s ability to conduct precision bombing until Campbell told them about Afghan children blown up while going about their daily lives. “You can see a light bulb go on, and they start saying, ‘What can I do to help the kids in Afghanistan?'” she says.

Campbell envisions more dead civilians, retribution, and unintended consequences if the United States attacks Iraq — the same atmosphere of back-and-forth tragedy that has characterized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I don’t like football. I find it easy not to pick a team. I am on the side of the grieving families,” Campbell insists. “Military action will not stop the suicide bombings. Suicide bombings will not stop the military incursions. Someone has to say stop the violence: That is the message.”

Of course, someone powerful must also listen to the pleas for peace if the bloodshed is ever to end. And even though the message of this small group of 9/11 survivors has largely been ignored, Craig’s family isn’t yet prepared to give up. After all, there was a time when getting out of Vietnam was also but a pipe dream.

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