Letter to the editor: Parents of 9-11 victims working for a better future

Every evening, I light a candle that is standing in a protected lantern. I place the lantern on our front porch. I offer this light to send healing, soothing thoughts to all those in mourning.

On Sept. 11, 2021, I had the chance to view a documentary about Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez. That documentary is called, “In Our Son’s Name.” September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows made the viewing possible.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Phyllis’s and Orlando’s lives were radically shifted. Their son, Greg, left a phone message, his last message, that there had been a terrible accident at the World Trade Center, that he was “all right” and to please call his wife, Elizabeth, and relay the message.

Orlando wrote his letter entitled, “Not in Our Son’s Name,” to President Bush, on Sept. 15, 2001:


Dear President Bush:

Our son is one of the victims of Tuesday’s attack on the World Trade Center. We read about your response in the last few days and about the resolutions from both Houses, giving you undefined power to respond to the terror attacks. Your response to this attack does not make us feel better about our son’s death. It makes us feel worse. It makes us feel that our government is using our son’s memory as justification to cause suffering for other sons and parents in other lands.

It is not the first time that a person in your position has been given unlimited power and came to regret it. This is not the time for empty gestures to make us feel better. It is not the time to act like bullies. We urge you to think about how our government can develop peaceful, rational solutions to terrorism, solutions that do not sink us to the inhuman level of terrorists.


Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez


Since 9/11/01, Orlando and Phyllis have chosen to reflect and act with intention. In November of 2002, human rights groups brought together the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui and families of victims of 9/11. Zacarias is an avowed 9/11 conspirator. Aicha el-Wafi is the mother of Zacarias. Phyllis and Orlando were a set of parents there at that meeting. Phyllis and Aicha bonded very quickly. Their bond was one of motherhood and having lost their sons. Phyllis lost her son, Greg, when the World Trade Center was attacked. Aicha lost her son to al-Qaeda and the terrorist movement. They wept together.

In 2006, Orlando testified for Zacarias at his trial and asked that the defendant be spared the death penalty. Both, Orlando and Phyllis opposed the death penalty for Zacarias. They were NOT seeking revenge. So far, Zacarias Moussaoui is the only person convicted in a U.S. court, in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks. Zacarias is currently serving life imprisonment.

In addition to teaching sociology at Fordham University, Orlando chose to teach night school at Green Haven Prison. Also, both Orlando and Phyllis wanted to interact with prisoners who had gone through an experience of facing what they had done wrong and wanting the chance to talk with someone who had suffered the violent loss of a loved one. A Peace Circle at Sing Sing Correctional Facility happened. Orlando and Phyllis participated. Convicted felons participated. Pain and suffering can yield a common human experience. Pain and suffering can be transformative. Phyllis has this to say, “To me, forgiveness means recognizing the full humanity of the person.” Is it possible for our prison system to support the process of healing through penitence? Can our prison system revisit the root of the word, penitentiary?

Orlando and Phyllis turned their reflections into actions. They have kept their minds and hearts open to human beings who have caused others to suffer. Their compassion is immense. I thank them for their intentional work. Our world is a better place.

Consider watching the documentary “In Our Son’s Name.” It was released in 2015. Orlando and Phyllis shared their story in this documentary. Go to peacefultomorrows.org/nyc-screening-of-in-our-sons-name-september-20-2015.

Consider watching a TED Talk from December 2010. The title of the talk is “9/11 healing: The mothers who found forgiveness, friendship.” Listen to Phyllis and Aicha speak.

Consider reading “September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows: Turning Our Grief into Action for Peace” edited by David Potorti. This book of essays, poems, songs and art about pacifism as a response to tragedy was published in 2003.

Phyllis and Orlando also became founding members of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. Consider making a donation to this organization. The address is:

September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows

P.O. Box 20145

Park West Finance Station

New York, NY 10025

Thank you for reading and listening.

Patricia Heather-Lea


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