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Works of Radical Imagination

“To Avoid Another September 11, United States Must Join the World” by Rita Lasar

March 01

by Seven Stories Press

With the forthcoming publication of Voices of a People’s History of the United States in the 21st Century, a new collection edited by Anthony Arnove and Haley Pessin, we are proud to share a series of excerpts from the book, which will be published individually each week on the Seven Stories blog until the book's release.

In this excerpt, originally published as an op-ed in Tallahassee Democrat, Rita Lasar, a founding member of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, offers a personal account of the devastation caused by the attacks on September 11, 2001, which took the life of her younger brother, to argue for the United States to become a state that exists in concert with and as a partner to the rest of the world, rather than in opposition to it. 

A new companion to the classic collection edited by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, Voices of a People’s History of the United States in the 21st Century brings together more than 100 activist texts on social and economic justice that have shaped the last 22 years. The editors, Arnove and Pessin, offer a curated collection of voices of hope and resistance from Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the struggle for Indigenous liberation, activist groups for immigrant rights, environmentalist movements, disability justice organizing, and frontline workers during the global pandemic who spoke out against the life-threatening conditions of their labor.

Included in this new book are writings by Angela Y. Davis, Nick Estes, Colin Kaepernick, Rebecca Solnit, Christian Smalls, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Howard Zinn, Rev. William Barber, Bree Newsome, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Tarana J. Burke, Dream Defenders, Sins Invalid, Mariame Kaba, Naomi Klein, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Linda Sarsour, Chelsea E. Manning, Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald, Julian Brave NoiseCat, H. Melt, and others. Together, their words remind us that history is made not only by the rich and powerful, but by ordinary people taking collective action.

Rita Lasar, a founding member of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, lost her brother Avrame (“Abe”) Zelmanowitz, on September 11, 2001. He could have escaped, but stayed behind to help a quadriplegic coworker, Ed Beyea. When President Bush mentioned Abe’s heroic actions in a speech at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, Lasar expressed outrage that her brother’s sacrifice was being used to justify the invasion of Afghanistan. After the assault on Afghanistan began, Lasar joined a delegation to visit families who lost loved ones in the US assault and to witness first-hand the impact of the bombings. Just before the one-year anniversary of her brother’s death, she wrote this commentary.

Rita Lasar, “To Avoid Another September 11, United States Must Join the World” (September 5, 2002), originally published in Tallahassee Democrat

When the planes hit the World Trade Center last September 11, my brother Avrame, who was in the North Tower, refused to join the evacuation because he was concerned for the safety of his close friend and fellow worker, a quadriplegic who could not easily leave. So Avrame stayed, hoping that help would arrive. When it didn’t, he and his life-long associate died together, along with thousands of others innocent New Yorkers.

That day changed my life. It changed the lives of all those who lost loved ones in the towers.

It changed the lives of the relatives of those on the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania. It changed the lives of hundreds of families who lost loved ones in the Pentagon. And, perhaps to a lesser extent, it changed the lives of most people living in the United States.

In the months after the disaster, I often heard how September 11 changed the world. But I don’t think the attacks changed the world. And to the extent that Americans believe that September 11 changed the world, it is because they don’t know much about the world in which they live.

I have never heard anyone say that the horrific massacres of 1994 in Rwanda—which took more than five hundred thousand lives— changed the world. Nor have I ever been told that Indonesia’s massacre of two hundred thousand East Timorese during a twenty-year span changed the world. I have not even heard that the daily loss of eight thousand souls in sub-Saharan Africa due to AIDS changed the world. Were these people less important than my dear brother?

Despite my own personal grief, I must conclude that, in light of these far greater calamities, September 11 did not change the world. What it did, in its own terrible way, was invite Americans to join the world, which is already a very troubled place. The question is whether we will accept that invitation.

Sadly, President Bush has no interest in doing so. He does not want the United States to join, or even cooperate with, the new International Criminal Court. He has also withdrawn the United States from the long-standing Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with Russia, even as India and Pakistan shudder on the verge of nuclear war. He refuses to support international agreements that would alleviate global warming, and he will not seek to ratify the treaty banning land mines, leaving the United States in the company of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, Bush’s “axis of evil.”

And now the president is planning for a war against Iraq. Never mind that Iraq has committed no act of aggression against us that justifies war, that there has been no evidence linking Iraq to the September 11 attacks. Neither does the president seem to care that the world is opposed to an invasion of Iraq.

The international coalition that fought the first Gulf War was cemented by the principle that one country cannot invade another without provocation. Now the White House is poised to dismiss the coalition to launch an unprovoked invasion of Iraq.

An isolated United States is an unsafe country. As September 11 showed, there are no barricades high enough, no bombs big enough, no intelligence sophisticated enough to make America invulnerable.

We Americans have a choice.

We can conclude that we are alone, that we owe the world nothing and that the world owes us everything. This is the assumption implicit in Bush’s “you’re either with us or against us” stance, which is a short-sighted and self-centered philosophy. Or we can open our eyes and see the abundance of opportunities for making the planet a safer and more just place, by actively participating in international organizations, multilateral treaties and protocols that advocate peace and social equality.

We can no longer afford a go-it-alone approach. If we want the world’s help in getting at the roots of terrorism, we are going to have to start helping the rest of the world. We are going to have to comprehend that there are millions of people around the globe who understand all too well the horror of tragedies like September 11.

When that realization occurs, only then will we glimpse how September 11 changed the world.

Rita Lasar (1931-2017) was a peace activist, a businesswoman, and one of the founding members of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. Her brother, Abe Zelmanowitz died at the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001.

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