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Conversation with Stephen Rohde on Peace and Justice 10 Years After 9/11

Robert Link: ICUJP doesn't have the luxury of pursuing a single issue which can realistically be brought to an end in the short term. Economic, political, sociological, and religious forces in the U.S. are addicted to war.
Stephen Rohde

Stephen Rohde

On September 11, All Saints Church in Pasadena will host the 10-year commemoration of the founding of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (ICUJP), in a program titled, "The Urgency of 9/11/11/: Challenging U.S. War Making". The event features a panel of celebrated interfaith leaders and will confront the realities of killing and displacing millions of people, destroying countries and costing trillions of dollars - and explore how people of faith and conscience can create, here and abroad, paths to peace, justice and reconciliation.

It is no coincidence that this is happening on the 10-year anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the Pentagon, and the World Trade Center in New York City. ICUJP was convened and founded as a prescient response to those attacks. I spoke by phone with ICUJP Chair, attorney Stephen F. Rohde, whose credentials as a peacemaker and seeker of justice include serving as chair of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, currently serving as the ACLU-SC Foundation chair, serving as Vice President of Programming for Death Penalty Focus, authoring books such as "American Words of Freedom" and "Freedom of Assembly", all while sustaining a successful law practice at the firm of Rohde & Victoroff. In 2001 Stephen helped found ICUJP.

I called Stephen on the Sunday evening of Labor Day weekend. He said he had managed to get a couple of hours swimming in both Saturday and Sunday, but mine was not his first peace and justice call of the day. He had already been interviewed by Don Bustany on Pacifica Radio's "Middle East in Focus" earlier Sunday morning.

Robert Link: How did that interview go?

Don [Bustany] and I talked a bit about how we are seeing a range of memorials for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, from the jingoistic, extolling of the United States in its perfection and emphasizing the theme of American victimization, on the one hand, to events such as ours which is sub-titled "Challenging U.S. War Making". The dominant narrative of too many of these events assumes the U.S. still needs to fight, with lots of reference to "the troops" with language like, "We must sustain our efforts". There is no critique or analysis of how we got to 9/11/01 in the first place much less how we got to 9/11/11 and how things could have been better or different. I wrote about this recently in an essay titled "500 Fridays" for the ICUJP web site.

In that essay I talked about how the U.S. had two basic paths available on 9/11/01: We could pursue the attackers for the criminals they were, with the support of a world that declared, "We are all Americans", or we could exploit the event to justify military pursuits in the Middle East and watch that global support turn into its opposite. Unfortunately the Bush administration chose the latter, under a doctrine of American exceptionalism which did not just begin on 9/11.

Robert Link: Could we really have responded to the attacks of 9/11 as criminal acts instead of as a military invasion?


Certainly. We had already indicted Osama bin Laden for a 1990s attempt to destroy the World Trade Center. As of the 9/11/01 attacks we enjoyed a world wide support and sympathy and we could easily have embraced United Nations policies for apprehending international criminals. An under-reported fact from this time is that the U.S. was contacted by members of the Taliban willing to give up bin Laden. Instead of taking their offer we used the attacks as an excuse to invade Afghanistan on October 7, 2001.

Robert Link: Would Spain's handling of Basque Separatists be an example of how that could have worked? Certainly Spain didn't bomb or invade the Pyrenees.

Yes. Again, we had the option, right after the 9/11/01 attacks, to follow U.N. policies. We could have relied on international police in Afghanistan. We could have done that instead of launching a military campaign. And by 9/11/11 we can see we made the wrong choice, we can see the failure of the policy of military response. Our presence in Afghanistan, and later Iraq, feeds the sentiments which breed terrorist activity, feeds anti-American sentiment. To that extent, we do the terrorists work for them.

We have spent more than $4 trillion, lost over 6,000 US soldiers, killed over 120,000 Iraqi and Afghan civilians and displaced millions more, destroyed countless homes and communities, and devastated economies including our own. Add to that U.S. sanctioned torture and the rise of Islamophobia and it is easy to see how the policies of the past ten years have failed us and instead fulfilled a script written for us by the terrorists themselves.

Robert Link: If U.S. policy has failed for the past ten years, what has ICUJP accomplished during that time, and what do you hope to accomplish in the next ten?

We have had many successes. One of the first concerns voiced by the group that founded ICUJP was that post 9/11/01 we would see an unfair and irrational demonizing of Islam, so we set out to bring together disparate people from different faiths and all walks of life. It is no accident that the "C" in our name is "Communities" rather than "Clergy". From the very beginning we knew we had to bring all sorts of people together.

Literally, because of this imperative, we have put on over 100 events, including mass actions and civil disobedience, regular education events, and delegations to elected officials. We have met for 500 Friday mornings, at a table peopled with Jews and Muslims and Christians and Buddhists and atheists and agnostics, all of us working to reach out to each other and each other's communities to stem the tide of hatred and to put teeth in our motto, "Religious Communities Must Stop Blessing War and Violence".

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We have also succeeded with the personal, internal work of actually getting to know each other, building the kinds of relationships that cross divides and keep us each aware of the other's humanity and sacredness, finding the common ground that unites us.

We have also had incredible success at the level of community organization. We have put on scores of educational events, and as our membership has evolved those events have grown as well. We held the earliest conference of which I am aware opposing military action in Iraq. In early 2009 we were again ahead of the curve, this time with a major conference on Obama's policies in Afghanistan. We have put on events about Islamophobia, events about the hijacking of pulpits by right-wing interests, and on the costs of war. Early on we called out the lies about WMDs, lies about the actual threat posed by Iraq, the false reporting and the failure of the American media.

The third pillar of our success is our solidarity and support with Muslim Americans. Right after the 9/11/01 attacks, when mosques were being threatened, many of us physically put our bodies on the line to support and protect the Islamic Center on Vermont. We actively developed relations with wonderful organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and the Islamic Shura Council. We did this because of our early understanding that 9/11/01 would be used as an excuse to scape-goat Muslims in America, and in the tradition of Martin Niemöller's "First they came..."

I published a version for the 9/11 era, titled, "Then They Came For Me", which opens with the line, "First they came for the Muslims...". We knew right away there would be wholesale racial and religious profiling and bigotry towards the Muslim community, and we lead the effort to combat that, so much so that CAIR has recently recognized our work by awarding us their Unity and Renewal Award, "because of ICUJP's work exemplifying the spirit of moving America forward from the national tragedy of 9/11."

Today, seventy-five percent of people polled support ending our involvement in Afghanistan sooner rather than later. For the folks in Southern California, I think we can safely take some small credit for anyone who polls that way, either directly or through our work with KPFK or through the congregations and communities of our various constituents.

Robert Link: If we stipulate that U.S. militarism is not a new problem and that the military-industrial complex is not likely to go away, what can ICUJP hope to accomplish in the next ten years?

We are not a 'Kumbaya' organization that believes all war or state violence will simply disappear. In my work with Death Penalty Focus, we have a very real hope for abolishing the death penalty in the United States. ICUJP, in contrast, doesn't have the luxury of pursuing a single issue which can realistically be brought to an end in the short term. Economic, political, sociological, and religious forces in the U.S. are addicted to war.

Our job in each realm is to work to reduce that addiction, to continue making the case that the $4 trillion spent on war since 9/11/01 could have been spent in ways that would actually have made us safer. We can continue spreading the message that national security is never served by war so well as it is by peace and justice, by economic stability.

On a more practical note, we continue to grow as an organization. We plan to hire a full time Executive Director, increase our full time staff, add internships for peace and justice work. We need to be better at outreach to communities, at building coalitions. We need to continue sharpening our message. We need to engage experts to help us promote a peace budget and to better understand how other nations thrive despite only putting a fraction of their budget into their military. We need to answer the question of what does it look like to see peace making.

We also continue to work to see the Bush administration held accountable for its crimes against humanity, and the Obama administration too since, sadly, it has departed little if at all from the course set out by the former administration. We continue to hope there is a prosecutor somewhere who someday will mount a proper investigation and, if warranted (that's the lawyer in me coming through) prosecute.

Robert Link: So if ICUJP is around for its 1,000 Friday, you won't see that as a failure?

Not at all. Our success comes from building relationships, from the goodwill and fellowship we have fostered, from building a learning community. We don't give up, we continue to work for more peace and less war. By our 1,000th Friday we will be an even better organization, we will have seen the world continue to change as the organization grows.

Because we are a hybrid of individuals and organizations, of freestanding positions and coalition building, our members go back to their other organizations and congregations and amplify the message we are trying to spread. There will always be a need for our message, so I will be happy to be here for our 1,000th Friday.

robert link

Robert Link, Esq

Robert Link is an attorney and a peace activist. He is an active member of the Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, the Beverly Hills Bar Association and the IP/Internet/New Media Section Executive Committee.