Two hours after the first airliner slammed into the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, the International Day of Peace, 24-year-old Leah Catherine Wells walked into her classroom at St. Bonaventure Catholic High School in Ventura, Calif., with a huge challenge before her.
For the next 50 minutes, Wells, a Georgetown graduate, former high school English and French teacher turned nonviolence advocate, was supposed to teach her daily class on nonviolence.
It never happened. The half-dozen-plus students who showed for the elective class were “off the wall,” said Wells. “It was bedlam. They were chatterboxes. ‘Did you see this? Did you hear that?’ ”
Wells, a staff member of the Santa Barbara-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, decided too much was still happening to make classroom discussion possible, so she folded her group into the world history class so they could watch developments on television.
Her class homework assignment that night was simple: Be patient, be kind.
Wells herself had an evening appointment in Los Alamitos (see related story).
The following day, Wells’ students had calmed down. They faced three questions on the chalkboard: “What were your reactions yesterday? How do you respond nonviolently to a situation like this? And WWGD (what would Gandhi do?)”
NCR sat in on the class with this understanding: no photographs, no last names. There were two Lisas, one in red, one wearing a lei, two Davids, one in red, one in white, Jeff, Paul, Veronica, Debby and Alyssa (with a Mike and a Drew arriving very late indeed, carrying excuse notes).
There were opening prayers, including one for a dad on military “high alert.”
In class, the talk went straight to television news reports on Sept. 11 following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Students talked about how life had changed the previous day — cops everywhere in cities around the country, tanks stopping people at the nearby U.S. Naval Base, Ventura County, in Port Hueneme.
“Tanks!” exclaimed one student.
Dave (in white) said watching television was like watching a movie. The news coverage seemed like the end of the movie “Fight Club.” An unanswered question Wells posed was: How can this be real if it’s like a movie?
Debby, whose dad is a firefighter, was mindful of the missing rescue workers. “I thought, ‘That could have been my dad if it was here,’ ” she said.
Wells eased the conversation toward nonviolence. Veronica found it “weird” that the attacks could occur on American soil. “I wonder why they did it,” she said. “Because they are getting back at us? They wouldn’t bomb us for no reason.”
Paul thought it was a power play, an attack on “the strength of the United States.”
“They want the power of knowing they can beat us, the power to say, ‘We attacked the U.S. We’re so cool.’ ”
Wells asked these sophomores, juniors and seniors, “Where has the United States bombed or invaded or stationed troops in your lifetimes?” Various places in the Gulf area, Iraq and Kuwait, Sudan and Afghanistan, all made the list.
When Wells told them that the United States had bombed Iraq this week and killed eight innocent people, students said, “We did?” “No way.”
Lisa (with the lei) talked about the inevitable violent reaction: “Now we’ll go kill them. I can understand where that’s coming from, the pain and fear. But if you stop and think about it, that’s doing the same thing we’re so upset about.”
Dave nodded, and added, “but you can’t just sit here and do nothing.”
But “We’d be attacking innocent people, too,” countered Lisa (in red).
“Patriotism comes into it — playing songs, people waving American flags,” she said. “We’re proud of the country. But that’s assuming the people who did this are foreign.”
Alyssa asked: “When we first decided what nonviolence meant, didn’t we say nonviolent people were strong? So wouldn’t being nonviolent be the strong thing to do?”
David (in red) echoed the 20th-century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in his next remark. “Being a nonviolent person, that’s between you and other people,” he said. “It’s different for nations to be nonviolent when faced with violence. This is actual war.” He speculated on the obstacles to nonviolent government.
Lisa (in red) said that responding with weapons is going to make people “so mad. It’s like getting out a map and saying, ‘Oh, we’ve bombed them before, and they’ve been in our path so let’s just bomb them again.’ ”
Drew, however, didn’t think America should just bomb. It should then go in and set up “a proper government there. Then there won’t be as much poverty and stuff like that.”
The buzzer sounded. Class was over. The questions remained on the board.
*Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large.