Why some victims of hate fight for peace
Rais Bhuiyan, a Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh, was working at a gas station store on Sept. 21, 2001, two weeks after 9/11, when a man entered the store and pointed a gun directly at his face. Bhuiyan quickly offered him cash and begged him not to shoot. But, the man wasn’t interested in any monetary offering. “Where are you from?” the man, Mark Stroman, an Aryan Brotherhood member, asked Bhuiyan. And before Bhuiyan could finish his answer of “Excuse me?” Stroman had pulled the trigger.
Bhuiyan survived the attack, but Stroman managed to kill two others on his rampage of revenge for 9/11—an Indian immigrant and a Pakistani immigrant. Stroman was sentenced to the death penalty in Texas, but Bhuiyan was left distraught.
“I wanted to save this human life,” Bhuiyan said. “Anytime I see someone die it touches my heart.”
Bhuiyan ended up suing Gov. Rick Perry, stating that Stroman’s crimes were a result of hate and ignorance and that his execution would not stop the root cause of this violence. Despite Bhuiyan’s campaign and his many efforts, Stroman was executed on July 21, 2011.
After decades of the United States inflicting pain in the Middle East — from our constant occupation to our Iraq embargo that killed 1.5 million civilians — 9/11 was a hateful retaliation to our hateful practices. Then, to avenge for 9/11, the United States started wars overseas, and in our country, people like Stroman assaulted those of Arab decent. All the victims of these acts of hate are left with a tremendous amount of suffering. People attempt to cope with the loss of their loved ones as on-lookers grieve for others’ loss. Meanwhile, survivors try to unravel their confusion, like Bhuiyan, who was left to contemplate why someone would want to kill him.
When afflicted with these hatreds, some respond by desiring war, as did a majority of Americans after 9/11, or violence, as did Stroman. Some respond by settling into a state of internal anger or despair. Then there are others who take the opportunity to push for peace and take action to stop the hateful cycle.
Charles B. Strozier, psychoanalyst and director of the Center of Terrorism at John Jay College in New York City, examined the various responses to 9/11. He listened to testimonies of victims’ family members, survivors, bystanders and spectators soon after the tragedy. He discovered that immediate survivors, those who witnessed the violence firsthand, tended to have a different response than those who watched the events of 9/11 on TV.
“There was a sense among immediate survivors of really not wanting to buy into revenge, killing, making of war, in order to avenge the disaster itself,” Strozier said. “The politics of the immediate survivors was one of caution, confusion, fear in themselves, caution about using the tragedy for any kind of revenge.”
However, according to Strozier, those who watched it on television, for the most part, had a different kind of response, consisting of “xenophobia, chauvinism, flag-waving, aggression, ‘lets’ go to war,’ ‘kill them all.’”
Strozier said, “You have literally have a screen between you and the violence — it’s kind of false witness. You see what’s happening, but you’re not really there to feel it. You don’t suffer within it. What you do is move quickly from the sense of fear to rage, and rage is an effect that is easily manipulated.”
Andrea LeBlanc, who lost her husband in the World Trade Center attacks, said the last thing she wanted was for any one else to be harmed. Instead she chose to turn her emotions into something constructive.
“I don’t think emotions are something you choose — I think they happen,” she said. “I think we do have a choice of what we do with those emotions — to turn grief or sadness or anger into something positive is the trick.”
LeBlanc is a proud grandmother who said she wants to see a better world for her grandchildren’s future. Daughter of a WWII veteran, she saw firsthand how war affects soldiers as her dad returned home with what would now be described as post-dramatic stress disorder.
In 2003 she joined Peaceful Tomorrows, a group founded by family members of 9/11 victims whose goal is to work together to create peace. Their name comes from a Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “Wars are poor chisels for carving our peaceful tomorrows.”
Bhuiyan also believes forgiving is easier than remaining angry, because “you feel much lighter” once you forgive. He said he was raised with this concept, as his Islamic faith taught him that “he who is best forgives easily.”
LeBlanc points out the hypocrisy of our society in the way we teach children to behave and then how we behave ourselves.
“We as a society spend a lot of time talking about how to teach children to share and be compassionate individuals, how to be interested in the other, how to deal with bullying,” she said. “It’s all great, but then what happens? Do we forget? Or was all that a lie?”
LeBlanc said she believes that we were handed a responsibility after the 9/11 attacks. She said she feels obligated to take this opportunity and use it as a way to spread her message that there are better ways to respond to violence than with more violence.
“Every decision for action or inaction has consequences,” she said.
Bhuiyan said being the victim of a hate crime has changed his life and that he now hopes to use the opportunity to fight for peace. After hearing Stroman was being put on death row, Bhuiyan started a campaign called “World Without Hate,” which included a website where he updated readers about Stroman’s case. Even with Stroman’s execution, Bhuiyan is still continuing his campaign to fight for peace in the face of hate.
“We often tend to blame someone for our pain instead of using it for active change,” he said. “A world without hate is possible if we think we’re connected with the community, if we’re part of a big family. We can learn about someone we don’t understand instead of keeping a barrier — we can overcome the fear of the unknown.”
As for ending terrorism, Bhuiyan said we have to live in the future and move toward peace.
“We try to justify war,” he said. “But a lot of people’s hearts are filling up with hate toward us.”
LeBlanc said that looking back on the past ten years, it is clear that war is not working. She said she hopes that she and the rest of Peaceful Tomorrows can have their stories heard so we may one day react differently to violence.
She said, “I think until all the stories about the people who have made other choices besides responding with violence to violence — until those stories are as well known and ubiquitous as all the stories about the glory of war and the glorification of revenge, we don’t have a chance to even think about responding another way.”
LeBlanc said that shortly after 9/11, amidst the frenzy of revenge and patriotism, Peaceful Tomorrows’ stories were not well received. Throughout the years, while the U.S. mainstream media did not gave them much attention, the international press showed much interest. As the tenth anniversary approached, she said the organization was flooded with requests from the press. She said they even made appearances on CNN, MSNBC and ABC.
Nevertheless, now as interest in Peaceful Tomorrows’ message is growing, there is less money to keep their organization developing.
“There was a lot of pressure from funders to not say anything that can be construed as critical of the administration,” LeBlanc said.
Ultimately, many of the funders pulled out their investment in the organization. Perhaps, as peace movements appear to get more political, investors find less interest. LeBlanc said funding for peace organizations is currently very scant.
LeBlanc and Bhuiyan, however, will continue to turn their sufferings from hateful acts into actions to fight for peace.
“The only thing you can control is how you can respond to the rest of the world,” Bhuiyan said. “It behooves all of us to recognize that we are a part of the whole and that every decision we make has an impact on other people and their well-being. We have to think about ‘What kind of world do want?’ and ‘How do we get there?’”
LeBlanc said that although the loudest voices in the United States are still those who insist its citizens must be fearful and that war is the answer, she will continue to struggle to deliver her story to the world.
“There are people listening,” she said. “Maybe it’s just a matter of patience and persistence.”
Alyssa Figueroa is a senior journalism and politics major who hopes you listened. Email her at [email protected]