July/August 2015 Issue • Volume 43 • Issue 5

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In Our Son’s Name: A Documentary on the Transformation of Tragedy

Matthew T. Lee, University of Akron

Orlando and Phyllis Rodriguez

At this year’s Annual Meeting, the Section on Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity will sponsor a special screening of the documentary In Our Son’s Name. This powerful film follows Phyllis and Orlando Rodríguez for more than a decade, exploring grief, the possibility of healing, and the search for meaning in the aftermath of their son Greg’s heartbreaking death in the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001. Their courageous response challenges our culture’s emphasis on retribution and punishment, while illustrating the power of the human spirit to transform tragedy into inspiring acts of peacemaking, solidarity, and ultimately, hope. The session will occur Monday, August 24, 10:30 a.m. to 12:10 p.m., and will include time for dialog with Orlando (a sociologist at Fordham University) and Producer-Director Gayla Jamison. It will be of great interest to sociologists concerned with social problems, public policy, peace, altruism, morality, criminology, restorative justice, and related topics.

The 9/11 attacks have left an indelible mark on all of us, as we continue to grapple with the causes and consequences of the human capacity to do harm. Paradoxically, the attacks also offer an inspiring affirmation of the essential goodness of humanity—if understood from the appropriate point of view. In the wake of the devastating violence, someone asked Fred Rogers (of the Mr. Rogers Neighborhood children’s show) what we could possibly say to the children. His thoughtful response was, “tell them to keep their eyes on the helpers.” Those words made all the difference for me and shifted my perspective from hopelessness to optimism about human nature. Despite my professional tendency to concentrate on the dark side—I was trained as a criminologist—I had to confront the empirical reality that there were so many more helpers than murderers on that fateful day. Watching the courage and compassion of the helpers gave me a new lens that now allows me to see the good in the most desolate of situations.

In Our Son’s Name affirms the utility of this lens. This does not mean that we should overlook legitimate suffering in the rush to find a silver lining. But philosophical, spiritual, and psychological disciplines have developed robust traditions for transmuting the negative. Sociologists could probably benefit from more attention to this process. What did Phyllis and Orlando do with their grief? They reached out to Aicha el-Wafi. Aicha is the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, the man who trained to be one of the 9/11 pilots and pled guilty to conspiracy to commit murder. They found solidarity with another parent who was grieving for the loss of her son to a life sentence in prison. Phyllis and Aicha spoke together in many public dialogs, including a TED talk that has been viewed more than half a million times. In their public appearances, they often held hands in a powerful gesture of their unconventional friendship and the possibility of deep empathy despite cultural differences.

If crime victims and offenders can help each other heal within prisons through I-Thou encounters, perhaps there is hope for schools, workplaces, and even sociology departments!

Aicha, Phyllis, and Orlando spoke against war and in favor of peace and understanding across cultural divides. At a time when polls showed that 90 percent of Americans were in favor of some kind of military response, the film shows how an anti-war letter written by Orlando, titled “Not in Our Son’s Name,” circulated on the Internet and led to national media appearances. The couple repeatedly expressed empathy for those civilians who were certain to die in the subsequent war as collateral damage, noting that such people were, like their son, simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were not alone in their efforts, as demonstrated by the book September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows: Turning Tragedy into Hope for a Better World. In a public talk, Phyllis described how she became “numb” after Greg’s death. But in time, she says, this loss became the catalyst to a “new life” focused on working to uproot the violence inherent in our culture. Eventually, Phyllis and Orlando found some healing by participating in a restorative justice process with murderers in prison.

How and why does this process of resilience and rebirth in the wake of tragedy actually work?

Structured Opportunities for Taking Refuge and I-Thou Relationships

In the film, Orlando notes that his training as a sociologist did not prepare him to deal with the bewildering events of 9/11 and the loss of his son. He was trained to “abstract and generalize,” which he found to be of little value. What we all need during such times is an opportunity to “take refuge” (Jacobs-Stewart 2010:29): to lean on a caring community and engage in a set of spiritual/existential practices that help us work through incomprehensible suffering so that we come to appreciate the deeper lessons that are always present. As my co-authored book The Heart of Religion demonstrates, prayer has historically played an important role for many people who seek understanding as they drink from life’s cup of suffering and joy. This involves “seeing beyond circumstances” in a way that can “transform the pain of suffering into peace and joy” (pages 128-133). But prayer is not mentioned in the film. And indeed, it is not an option for taking refuge for the growing demographic category labeled as the non-religious.

Pathways associated with “secular spirituality” (Kurtz and White 2015:64) or “cognitively oriented spirituality” (Zajonc 2010:119) might be an option for those who lack strong ties to religion. This involves the “secular redefinition of tools mainly belonging to the wisdom traditions” so that they become accessible to people of all faiths and the non-religious (Giorgino, 2014, see also Batchelor 1998). Secular mindfulness practices are one increasingly popular example (Lee 2015). The 12 Steps pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous offer another pathway (Lee and Pagano 2014). In AA, secular members refer to their “higher power” as G.O.D.: the local home group (“Group of Drunks”) and the “Good Orderly Direction” of AA’s principles and practices (Laura S. 2006:16-17). When they work the Steps and lean on the home group, they receive a daily reprieve from their addiction. There is no permanent cure, the reprieve must be constantly renewed through altruistic acts.

If we’re honest, we can admit that we all “take refuge” in one form or another when life becomes overwhelming and our well-worn habits of sense-making no longer make sense. Examples include mood-eating, working too much, lashing out in anger, becoming mired in grief, and various other ways of closing off to life as it is. Instead of responding to stress in unhealthy ways, we can engage the tend-and-befriend pathway that was modeled so brilliantly by the public speaking engagements of Phyllis and Aicha.

In these overwhelming moments we will take refuge in something and the question becomes whether this act is constructive or destructive. A restorative justice process offered an opportunity for Phyllis and Orlando to grow, as they opened to a seemingly unbearable reality by developing empathy and understanding with convicted murderers. Their daily reprieve included meeting with murderers in a circle dialog, which illustrates Martin Buber’s classic distinction between I-Thou and I-It relations. When we treat others as an It (an object) we fail to appreciate them as fully realized human beings. Phyllis and Orlando had an I-Thou encounter in the prison, in which understanding was deep and bi-directional. Poet and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh expressed the timeless wisdom they experienced: “When you understand, you cannot help but love.”

How might our social systems more routinely cultivate such experiences? “In Our Son’s Name” joins a growing list of emotionally gripping documentaries that offer answers rooted in restorative justice and I-Thou relationships (see also The Dhamma Brothers, Beyond Conviction, and Serving Life). As these films demonstrate, we can express compassion for all others, without exception, in ways that heal us in the process. Sociologists can play a vital role in helping groups, organizations, and communities enhance this capacity to transform tragedy. The healing and transformation associated with restorative justice, as documented by these films, provides an example within the criminal justice system. If crime victims and offenders can help each other heal within prisons through I-Thou encounters, perhaps there is hope for schools, workplaces, and even sociology departments! We would serve our students and our society better if we directed more of our collective energy towards the development of sociological insight into such transformative dynamics. 

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