Logo SAVE - Sisters against violent extremism

22. April 2007

Aicha el Wafi&Phyllis Rodriguez Museum © Xenia Hausner

Aicha el Wafi and Phyllis Rodriguez

Anger and Sympathy

Phyllis Rodriguez lost her son in the attacks of September 11th 2001. She shares a friendship with the mother of one of the suspected complicits.

By Edit Schlaffer

The names of Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez, Aicha el Wafi and Zacarias Moussaoui will all go down in history – for very different reasons. What unites them are the events of September 11th 2001.

Phyllis works as a teacher and artist in New Jersey. Her husband, Orlando is a university professor. Aicha el Wafi is a French civil servant of Maroccan descent and the mother of Zacarias, the accused 20th pilot. Phyllis lost her son, Greg, in the attack – he was one of the 2759 victims that died in the World Trade Center. Aicha also lost her son – to an ideology of hatred and destruction. Through their dialogue, the women hope to send a political message of peace and reconciliation.

Phyllis Rodriguez, the events of September 11th 2001 claimed your son, Greg, who at the time was working in the World Trade Center. What happened that day?

It was a beautiful, clear morning. My husband had left early to Fordham University in the Bronx and I was taking a morning walk along the river. When I got home, the porter in our building told me that a fire had broken out in the World Trade Center. I charged up the four flights of stairs and simultaneously turned on the television and the answering machine. My son was working in the towers.
To my relief, I heard Greg’s voice on the machine: “There’s been a terrible accident in the WTC. I’m ok. Call Elizabeth”. I called his wife, Elizabeth, who had seen a plane flying extremely low over downtown Manhattan. She feared the worst, but I assumed that he had already left the building when he called me. Greg was working on the 103rd floor of the north tower, which was the first one hit by the suicide bombers. When the second plane hit, I knew that it wasn’t an accident. The afternoon went on, darkness set in and then it was night. I refused to believe that the unimaginable had actually happened. But the next day it was impossible to deny that Greg was dead, as were thousands of others.

Shortly following the attack, you posted a letter on the internet – an emotional message to the President of the United States, asking him to pause before rushing to seek revenge. “Our son died as a victim of an inhumane ideology. Let’s together think about a sensible response that will bring peace and justice. Our nation should not contribute to inhumanity.”

We composed that letter three days after the attacks. It perhaps helped us to rationalise our grief, but we also knew that our opinions would be heard and valued. There was no official response, but we were overwhelmed by the support we received from people around the world, who were eager to hear our messages.

Zacarias Moussaoui, a young Frenchman of Maroccan descent, was put on trial in the United States on suspician of being the twentieth hijacker. From the sidelines of the trial Aicha el Wafi, his mother, voiced the request to meet with the family members of the victims. Did this surprise you?

Yes, and I wondered what her reasons were. I got my answer one day in November 2002. She wanted to express her condolences for our loss and apologise for the suffering we were put through. It was important to her to show us how much she sympathised, all the while having to deal with her own personal pain.

What was it like for you and Orlando meeting Aicha?

The first meeting was very moving. There were eight of us Americans and we were all very nervous. I was amazed at what a calming effect our encounter had on me. This wonderful idea of just getting together united us in a unique way.

What motivated you to meet Aicha again after the first encounter? You even learned French to be able to communicate directly with her.

The driving force was probably the connection I felt to her as a mother, which allowed me to empathise with her pain and disbelief that her son was willing to hurt people. This relationship that grew between me and Aicha was also a reaction to the anti-Muslim sentiments that were prevalent in our society. I wanted to convey that I did not condemn all Muslims for this terrible attack, which took my son from me.

In April 2005 I decided to see Aicha through her son’s trial. I was with her all the time on her visits to Virginia and New York, up until the verdict – life without probation.

According to United States law, the families of the victims have the right to be heard in the course of the trial. Usually, these testimonies are used by the prosecution to achieve the highest possible sentence. In Zacaria’s case there was a surprising turn of events.

The prosecution called thirty five family members of the victims to the witness stand. My husband was one of the brave thirteen who testified for the defence, so against the death penalty. This had never happened before. Aicha and I had to be very careful not to let our friendship become public, as this would have made a huge story for the media. Orlando wasn’t involved in our meetings, or the prosecution could have claimed that his testimony was not objective.

You seem convinced that Zacaria was not involved in the attacks, otherwise you would probably not have been able to support Aicha in this way during the trial.

In our eyes there was not enough evidence to prove that Zacaria was directly involved in the attacks, even though he was a member of Al Qaeda. We were watching carefully as he was made into a scapegoat, being portrayed as a monster in the media, just to show that some sort of action was being taken against terrorism. Symbolic justice goes against all the principles of actual justice. We wanted to show Aicha that she had our sympathy and our admiration in her misfortune.

International diplomacy and politics are currently attempting to increase public dialogue and tolerance in extreme situations. Were the reactions to your friendship with Aicha always positive?

Mostly people are surprised. Of course there is also criticism and negative comments. But this provides a good possibility to enter into debate with people.

You are part of the Forgiveness-Project. Forgiveness has a very personal meaning. At this level the process of forgiveness can dedemonise an aggressor and help to regain stability. In addition to this, the project has given forgiveness political significance.

To me, forgiveness is the recognition that we are all capable of anything – both good and exreme evil. I have learned that my suffering is no different to that of grieving parents in Israel, Rwanda, Irak or Afghanistan. I have learned that anger is a natural reaction to the death of a loved one, but with this anger comes sympathy for others who are also suffering. That is how we managed not to become bitter and negative.

Can this approach, which is an integral part of the philosophy of “soft power”, be used as a political strategy?

I cannot and will not accept military solutions for social and political problems. Every day we have to watch as this approach increases global instability. I want to encourage people to talk to their enemies. I am convinced that this is the way to establish a strong peace movement. And if we are really convinced of this approach, then the politicians will have to listen.

You must have asked yourself how Greg would have reacted to your way of grieving and coming to terms with your situation.

I remember when Greg was fourteen and returned home from a summer in Salamanca. He was so surprised that the Spanish felt so much animosity towards the French. The conclusion he drew from this was “I hate nationalism”. I have no doubt that he would think my friendship with Aicha was wonderful and that he would appreciate the irony of the situation.

Have you ever considered visiting Zacarias? And what would you want to say to him?

We aren’t even allowed to write to him. But Orlando and I do hope to see him one day. I would want to tell him how much I thought of his mother and that I am worried about him. I would like to ask him what attracted him to extremist ideas and I would try to convey to him how much suffering his ideology has inflicted on us. I hope that one day we will be able to approach each other as human beings.

Would you like to meet with Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice?

I can understand why officially, and in the media, Condoleezza Rice is used as an example to demonstrate that an African-American woman in power is no different in her actions and her mentality than the white male who traditionally occupies high government positions. If I was given the opportunity to meet her, I would like to remind her of predecessors who, when our country faced a threat, would put policies of realpolitik on hold and would find human solutions.

This article was published in the Austrian newspaper Die Presse on April 20th 2007.


« Back to overviewSend a friend Print article