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Brother of September 11 victim says: Not in my name
"This war has nothing to do with justice"

February 15, 2002 | Page 5

THE BUSH administration claims that its "war on terrorism" is being waged in the name of people like James Potorti, who died in the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. But DAVID POTORTI, James' brother, is part of a group of family members of September 11 victims who have a different message: Not in our names.

In recent months, David has written and spoken out frequently against the U.S. government's war on Afghanistan. In December, he took part in a peace walk from Washington, D.C., to New York City with other family members.

David talked to Socialist Worker's AARON HESS about why he opposes Bush's war on "terrorism."

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HOW DO you and other family members that you've spoken out with feel about the way that the Bush administration has justified the war in your names?

FIRST OF all, the government never asked us how we felt. I don't think it would have been hard to include us in a dialogue on some level.

When it was clear that we were going to bomb, I started getting this sinking feeling that it was being done in our names. And I know several other family members who felt exactly the same way. So we've had an identical response from the beginning: Not in our names.

This war does no honor to our loved ones. We don't want to see other people's loved ones suffer the losses that we have.

Personally, there was also anger, and a feeling of being used. "Pawn" may be a cliched way of putting it--"excuse" might be better--but that describes how I feel.

I think the September 11 attacks are being used as an excuse for the military campaign. Seeking justice has nothing to do with this war--it's irrelevant.

I think you have to look at a completely different set of interests and aims: oil, military power, political positioning. Someone always benefits. There are always financial interests at stake.

There were talks with the Taliban before this war began, negotiations to build an oil pipeline through Afghanistan from Uzbekistan. You need troops in there to impose a stable government and to guard a pipeline.

The Bush administration is full of old oil guys, and this isn't a coincidence. There's lots of money to be made in that region, and the Pentagon isn't a nonprofit business.

I'm not an expert on these issues, but I think it would be naive not to acknowledge them.

WHAT ROLE do you think the media have played?

I RECENTLY saw Howard Zinn speak, and he said that the media have become "the handmaiden of the government." It's terrifying, but that's a perfect description.

I'm old enough to remember when the mainstream media offered some criticism of the government, during Vietnam and after. Imagine [former CBS anchor] Walter Cronkite telling Lyndon Johnson that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable!

But that voice has completely disappeared. Today, CBS has Dan Rather announcing that he's lining up behind the president. This is very dangerous, because in a free society, the media are supposed to represent the voices of ordinary people, so that we can engage these very powerful entities.

Instead, it seems like the media have turned against us. It's as if they want to put people in their place--make us march in lockstep behind whatever position the government takes. They're supposed to be on our side, but they're not.

I no longer watch TV--or I watch the news for half an hour, long enough to get the picture, and then turn it off for two weeks.

Alternative media and the Internet are the only places where you can get critical information. The problem is that there's this huge gap between the mainstream corporate media and these alternative sources. So this tiny minority of people who have access to these alternative sources are almost living in a different world--it's like a "tale of two cities."

I think Arundhati Roy, the Indian activist, is right when she said that the challenge facing us today is getting that information out in the mainstream, middle-class American consciousness. It's not for lack of information that people don't know the realities of this war. It's a question of access and power.

Most of my experience with the press has been pretty much what you might expect, given the circumstances: a lot of hostility. On one radio show from San Diego, a guy called up and said he'd never been so angry in his life. He asked me whether I wanted to "kiss Osama on the lips." It was this bizarre, homophobic reaction. All I was saying was that the war was wrong.

In general, the response that I've gotten from the media is, You're naive, and your sympathies are misguided. I've also heard that I don't understand what it takes to "maintain our way of life." One man called in, said he was a marine, and told me that.

Another caller said that if I opposed the bombing on moral or religious grounds, he would understand, but that I seemed to be disagreeing with Bush politically, and that was unacceptable.

What I've learned from this is that if you want to have different ideas and go sit in the corner, that's fine. If you want to meditate or maybe carry a sign, that's okay. But when you actually want to change things, you run up against real resistance.

We pay lip service to the idea of living in a free society, where we can all express our ideas. But when you actually try to change things, that's a different situation. We're not used to genuine, heated public debate. It's been 30 years or so, maybe since Vietnam, since we've had it.

I think we need to get used to allowing that kind of debate again. When people hear a different point of view from what they've been told over and over, there is a kind of cognitive dissonance that makes them uncomfortable. That can provoke a kind of gut reaction.

I was on "The O'Reilly Factor," the right-wing talk show on Fox, and Bill O'Reilly was trying to compare bin Laden to Hitler. His argument was, Weren't the German people responsible for Hitler? In other words, ordinary Afghans are responsible for the Taliban--if they didn't like the Taliban, why didn't they overthrow them? So they deserve to get bombed.

That argument is just crazy. Afghanistan is a devastated country that has already been bombed back to the Stone Age. People can't even eat. How could they have overthrown the Taliban?

I suppose if you take this kind of logic to its extreme, we're "responsible" for George Bush and the actions of our government. So does that mean that our people deserved to get attacked on September 11? Of course not.

On the other hand, I do think that in a democracy, where we're all comparatively empowered, we are responsible for the policies of our government.

That's why I'm out protesting. I think it's my responsibility. And I think it's a very positive thing.

THE OPINION polls still show approval for Bush and the war. So what do you think we should do to put the antiwar argument out to wider numbers of people?

FIRST, I'D say something about those polls. They're kind of like asking a blind man if he likes the color of your dress. Asking people whether they favor the bombing is the same kind of question.

The Pentagon is managing coverage of the war so as to prevent any kind of independent reporting. We don't see pictures of the horrible civilian casualties. We don't see pictures of kids with their arms and legs blown off. The media only reflect the administration's story about what's happening, which is a uniformly rosy story.

So the response in these polls doesn't reflect an actual awareness--no one knows what's going on. If you tell people how many civilians have been killed--3,700 or 3,800 people--they would respond in a different way.

When Howard Zinn came down to North Carolina at the end of last year, I asked him what he was encountering when he went out to speak around the country. He told me that support for the war was wide, but actually pretty shallow.

People want to support the fight against terrorism, so they support the bombing. But when you explain what's actually happening, people are willing to entertain alternative ways of dealing with the problem.

HAS THE experience of organizing and speaking out against the war changed your views about U.S. foreign policy?

I CAN'T say my views have really changed, because I had the same ideas before September 11. I think anyone who has been paying attention to our foreign policy over the last 10 or 20 years has to find this very saddening.

I saw the documentary called Panama Deception, which took a very raw, honest look at the U.S. invasion of Panama and the accompanying media coverage. It showed what we have to do to retain our power and control in other parts of the world.

That struck a nerve with me. I think there's a growing awareness of the price we pay for the way we live. Our clothes are made in sweatshops around the world. Our huge demand for oil costs people their lives.

It's very saddening, because we can still have our way of life without doing these things. We can live smarter and be more just.

I'm not into unrestrained capitalism. It produces these huge differentials in wealth. It wouldn't be the first choice for a way of living my life. People hear that and say, "You're not anti-American, are you?" I'm not trying to be, because I think there is no equivalence between democracy and capitalism. If anything, the opposite is true.

I'm for democracy. When people talk about "our way of life" and they mean democracy, then I'm fine with our way of life. But we act as if we're the only democracy on Earth and that our model is the best. There are other democracies, and many of them are far less wasteful than we are.

What does the Pentagon get every year in military funding--$360 billion? Do we really need to spend that much money to maintain our way of life? Countries in Western Europe spend a fraction of that amount, and they're able to provide health care, education, safe streets and infrastructure for their people's needs.

I'm into our way of life, but we should stop wasting so much energy and money to achieve it.

WHAT CHALLENGES does the antiwar movement face with the government trying to expand the war to new targets?

I REMEMBER hearing Donald Rumsfeld speak at the beginning of the war. He said that the country is going to be fighting this war for 40 or 50 years. And I thought to myself, this is absolutely crazy. The idea that people would accept this is absurd.

I don't want to spend the rest of my life with my government at war. I don't want to leave my child with a world at war. There must be a better way. The terrorist attacks were a crime against humanity. That means humanity should respond--not just the military.

This is a weird war. There's no "finish line," nothing defining victory. And the people doing most of the dying are innocent civilians.

At the end of the 20th century, three-quarters of those killed in war were civilians. Civilians and their loved ones are the victims. They're innocent--just as innocent as my brother and my family. That's reason enough for me to reject the war and say that there has to be a better way.

A number of family members are now putting together a permanent group called September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. It's a nonprofit organization that will allow us to travel, speak and get support for our activities.

Four people who lost loved ones on September 11 were in Afghanistan with Global Exchange--over there meeting civilians who also lost family members and loved ones in the bombing. I think that we want to show that there's no difference between us. It's a really wonderful coming together across humanity.

I feel my life has really changed since the terrorist attacks. There's no way to go back. This group will remain the focus for me for quite awhile. Right now, I can't imagine doing anything else.

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