Catalog Catalog

September 11 and Beyond
Written by Peter Hagerty, co-founder of Peace Fleece, March 2002

  Sergei with newborn son Niki

This has been a very emotional year for me as it has been for many Americans. In early September I said good by to my good friend Sergei Reotov, who died in Moscow over the summer. A father of a four year old son and husband to a wonderful woman, he tripped for just a moment on the path to a normal life which most young Russian men are struggling to negotiate and that trip turned fatal. Then, just two days after returning home from Russia, the Trade Towers blew up just fourteen blocks south of where my daughter was starting her first week of graduate school. And two weeks later I was crying in the shower, not because I was in pain after beating my son in tennis but rather in the knowledge that he would soon be turning 20 and could just as well be fighting in the Afghan mountains before this would all be over.

I seem to be coming to crossroads in my own life and I am not sure I like it. I have put off writing this entry into the Peace Fleece newsletter mostly because I felt I could not adequately address what some politically correct pundits call “Islamic extremism” but what is in fact a series of complex international and domestic issues that we as a country have failed to face over my lifetime.

When I was in the eighth grade, my parents sent me to a proper boarding school outside of Boston. On the steps of this prestigious institution when the weather was mild, a scene was played out on a daily basis that represented for me the very definition of fear and intolerance. A day student driven to school by his parents would be deposited in front of a crowd of upperclassmen who would taunt him with anti-Semitic slurs as he made his way into the building. I never forgot these mornings and for years hated the school for allowing this to happen.

Last Sunday, over supper after the first cold day of the fall, I sat talking with a classmate from this school whom I hadn’t seen for over forty years. I had not planned to talk about this memory. But as I recalled the faces of the jeering students, I saw in the picture for the first time two young men, both barely fifteen, one getting out of a car and the other, myself, standing off to the side. I felt the latter boy’s fear, his disgust and for the first time I saw his shame. Shame that he felt so helpless, that he could do nothing to fight back against this intolerance. It is this young man that I am meeting at the crossroads now. It is to him that I must account for the last forty years of my life, lived as an American whose country in now bombing a nation that has barely one working airport and a population that is near to starvation. How do I explain this?

Peace Fleece has taken my family and friends into extraordinary homes around the world to sit down to delicious meals with some very special people. The winds of an early winter in 1988 blew over the plains of Samarkand as some shepherd friends and I made our way south to the Afghan border. Soviet MIG fighter jets returned from attack missions, their enemy being the mujahadin Afghan rebels backed by U.S. money and weapons. It began to snow as we arrived at a small village of mud brick homes and narrow streets. Here lived an ancient woman with cracked skin and hands of bone who spun wool from her own sheep and cooked a pot of squash soup for anyone who happened by. We were the first Americans ever to visit this village and we had arrived the day they were burying one of their own, a soldier killed most likely by a bullet made in my homeland. These people were Muslim and we were their surprise guests. But there was no talk of war or accountability, only talk of the weather and shouts of pleasure as we passed around photos of our loved ones, our homes, our animals. As farmers we knew that life was a gift easily snapped away by a hungry coyote, a barn fire or a car going too fast around a curve on a dirt road. The aircraft roared overhead, the mourners passed by chanting “Allah is Great” and the woman picked up her drop spindle and began to spin.

Uzbeck woman spinning, near the Afgan border
  In 1992, shortly after the Gulf War, Peace Fleece went to the Mid-East to see if it could find Israeli and Palestinian partners who would be willing to work together. We found two villages, Neve Shalom in Israel and Beit Sira in the West Bank a few miles away. When the villagers of Neve Shalom had needed homes to be built, the Palestinians of Beit Sira provided the expertise and labor. When the families of Beit Sira had needed supplies for their school, Neve Shalom had come to their rescue. Over the years a special friendship had grown between the families of these two villages and it exists today. Thanks to this friendship people from Beit Sira were able to make our Mid-east Drop Spindles and Neve Shalom helped get these spindles to America. Shortly after the September 11 attack, Howard of Neve Shalom and Zacharia of Beit Sira were some of the first to inquire after the well being of our family here in the States. They both knew the meaning of terror for it had become the norm in both their countries.

When I watch the television or listen to the radio, I hear people trying to simplify the problem. There is nothing simple about the hole our country now find itself in. Because Peace Fleece has always been committed to working with both sides, it has made it a bit more difficult for me to jump to judgment. For every rotten apple there is a delicious one. You think you have an enemy in your sites, then you remember warm fires in dark places and it’s not that simple. No side is all right, no side is all wrong. Right and wrong start to loose meaning.

Back in 1985 when I first went to the Soviet Union to start Peace Fleece, our two governments were on the verge of a nuclear war. In spite of this atmosphere, citizens from both countries chose to defy the talking heads of the news networks, the Pentagon and the Kremlin and visit the homes, businesses and schools of their enemy. Hundreds of thousands of Russians and Americans flew half way around the world to talk with, eat with, study with and dream with their adversary and thanks directly to their efforts, a nuclear holocaust was avoided. As I listen to the news today, I wonder what it will take to stop this latest and ever increasing spiral of violence, whether it be in Afghanistan, the Middle East, New York or Belfast.

As I stood by Sergei’s grave in Moscow and held his father in my arms, I knew that Sergei’s gift to both of us was that in the grief we now shared we had grown so much closer. I know that it is the small acts of kindness like a nine year old girl from Kansas writing a New York fireman a thank you letter or an old woman stirring a pot of squash soup to feed her guests on a lonely mountain side that give me cause for hope, that keep the devil of cynicism and judgment at bay. Ultimately it is the choice we all make on how we treat our neighbors, whether they be enemy or friend, whether they be next door or half way around the world, that will decide whether we survive or not. Tonight as I walk as on the edge of a knife, I use the love of my friends and family to keep from falling. I prepare for a tomorrow that will have time for the pain and sorrow of others. And I remember the 15 year old boy and the memories he has borne these many years as I plan my actions for the future.

Howard of Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam, Israel

Zacharia from Beit Sira, West Bank