What has changed for me this year is that I have begun to work for the abolition of the death penalty. Speaking only for myself, I see strong parallels between a murder victim family seeking this form of revenge and the vilification of the Muslim community concurrent with the invasion of Iraq. Of course, justice is desirable. Criminal acts call for appropriate consequences. I would never say that it’s okay for my mother’s killer to walk the streets or that those responsible for the 9/11 attacks should not be prosecuted according to law. Setting aside the politics of that invasion and the problems with the application of capital punishment, however, my concern is with whether retaliative actions help or hinder the recovery of the survivors.
My own experience is that revenge does not. I want to emphasize that I do not speak for anyone else. We all have different experiences. For me, focusing on wishing harm to the one who had harmed my mother might well have kept me locked — incarcerated — in a state of bitterness and hatred. While I was in no way to blame for what happened, I still bear the responsibility for what I do with it. It’s like the adult child of an alcoholic getting herself into therapy instead of whining helplessly, attributing all her problems to her upbringing.
I have to ask myself, What do I need? What do I want? One of my inspirations was a woman of astonishing kindness and grace, whose daughter and son-in-law were murdered and whose bodies she discovered. She told me that she faced a choice of whether or not to let herself be driven crazy by what she experienced. I think we all have that choice — to succumb to the darkness of our anguish and righteous fury, or to walk through it, to move beyond it.
I remember the scene in The Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya finally tracks down Count Rugen, who begs for his life and offers anything. Inigo says, “I want my father back!” (and then kills him). I want my mother back, too. All those who lost loved ones and colleagues want them back. We know that’s impossible, but what is possible is to get our own lives back. Our own selves. Our best selves.
My experience of healing is that I get myself back when I focus on re-engaging with life, on fully experiencing my feelings, on understanding what I have lost and what can never be replaced, but what can be restored. The more I stop looking to an external event (the execution of the murderer) to somehow make me feel better or “achieve closure,” and instead focus on taking care of my insides — my heart, my spirit, my body — the better I fare.
So I’ve been talking about my own healing process and what I’ve learned. I’ve been meeting with other family members and with people who’ve been sentenced to death and then exonerated. I’ve been looking for ways to build bridges, to nourish tolerance and reconciliation, to create understanding. I make an ongoing conscious decision to not harbor hatred in my heart, but to fill it instead with what I want in my life.
Love. Compassion. Gratitude. Joy. Wonder. Peace.
I can think of no more fitting memorial for my mother . . . or for those who died on 9/11.