23 December 2008

Trauma, Grief, Anger, Action: A Wrenching Recipe for Social Change Through the Ages

What is new in the activism of 9/11 family members, and what is old? This is one of the important questions I am dealing with in No Truer Hearts. Throughout history, people who have suffered some outrage, who have been wronged, or injured in some way, have responded by attempting to right the wrongs, redress their grievances, make sure that others would not suffer as they had. People make history by making the world a better place. 

When things are going well, people are content to live their lives quietly and tend to their own needs and wants. But when their situation changes, either materially or emotionally, they can be spurred to action. The death of a loved one is one of the strongest shocks a person will ever suffer, and countless Americans have turned such grief into action, often with the goal of making sure others will not suffer the same fate as their loved ones. Think of all those groups dedicated to finding cures for serious medical conditions, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Such activism is certainly not new, but carries on a long tradition of people striving to improve their lives. 

In one sense, the 9/11 family members are part of this group of reformers, but the causes they championed arose directly from the various organizational shortcomings and failures before during and after 9/11, not a disease or social ill. Theses cause have included air transportation security, skyscraper safety, first-responder reform, immigration policy, the various victims' memorial projects, and the government and private sector reforms dealt with by the 9/11 Commission. 

So what is new? Other groups have made significant changes in America and the world, but the family members who pushed for the 9/11 Commission and subsequent reforms literally turned Washington upside down. The result of their efforts was one of them most wide-ranging government reform movements in American history. If the the various bureaucracies in America were the often immovable objects, the 9/11 family member activists were the irresistable force.

A couple of recent articles in the Washington Post set off this train of thought. The first is a lovely piece by Michael E. Ruane about the families of the victims of Pan Am Flight 103, which was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland on 21 December 1988. The article echoed many of the themes I've encountered among family members: the importance of memory, the special bond of those left behind, the persistence of pain and grief, and pride in their accomplishments. The Flight 103 family members were able to pressure the US and other governments "to bring Libyan agents to justice for planting the bomb and to force the Libyan government to pay compensation for it," according to Ruane.

The other article shows vividly how victims' families can be helped and hindered by the sometimes capricious nature power in Washington. Kimberly Kindy describes the trials and tribulations of another group of family members. These were the loved ones of seven Americans killed when a suitcase bomb blew up French-operated UTA Flight 772 on 19 September 1989. In order to put power in the hands of American victims of terrorism, Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1996, which opened the door to lawsuits by private individuals who had financial claims against countries that sponsored terrorism. According to Kindy, "Family members of the American victims made history in January by becoming the first and only group to successfully sue Libya in federal court." The judge awarded 44 relatives $6 billion in damages.

But power and politics has gotten in the way. As part of the US effort to improve relations with Libya, the lawsuit was nullified and the amount available to families was replaced by a smaller sum. This turn of events, though outrageous to family members and others, is not surprising. It happens all the time. Politics trumps everything, and those with the power decide on the politics. 

The same sort of "through the looking glass" logic has been employed after 9/11. Saudi Arabia, home to most of the hijackers, and possibly connected indirectly to the plot, was treated with kid gloves for obvious reasons, political and economic. At the same time, Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, was invaded and occupied, at the expense of the fight against al-Qaeda, the real perpetrators. It could be argued that the travesty of the Iraq adventure set in motion the "reform movement" that culminated in the electoral results of November 2008.

This post will give you an idea of some of the other themes I'll be touching on in No Truer Hearts.

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