Some of us still wore ashes on our foreheads, reminders that "to dust we shall return," as we gathered in the fellowship hall following Ash Wednesday services in St. Joseph's Church in Sevierville. We were there to hear Rita Lasar, a little woman with a big vision.
She stood before us uncertain how the Volunteer State would receive her. The Sevier County Organization for Peace and Equality (SCOPE) arranged this talk for the retired New York businesswoman, the first of several she would give in East Tennessee. Seek out Lasar this weekend, if you would hear a sound mostly drowned out by drums of war beating now at fever pitch. Lasar's quiet, strong voice delivers a subtle refrain. She urges us to forge a greater destiny for humanity than that of killer, invader and occupier. Hers is a vision earned honestly, in mud-brick hovels and in war's debris and in the dark night of mourning for a loved one lost to violence.
Hear that deep, cobwebbed voice. Gaze into unsettling brown eyes scooped from shadows in a face framed by wintry hair. At 71, Lasar owns the face of one who has suffered and striven to bring meaning to that suffering.
She was at her kitchen table drinking her first cup of coffee on September 11, 2001, when a voice on the radio reported that an airplane had struck the World Trade Center.
"I live very close to Ground Zero, on the fifteenth floor of an apartment building," she said. She was watching when the second plane struck. "I thought two things. My brother is in one of those towers." And then, "This country has changed forever."
Her brother, Abe Zelmanowitz, died a hero. His friend and coworker, a quadriplegic named Ed, was bound to a wheelchair and could not escape. As others evacuated the towers, Zelmanowitz vowed to stay with his friend until firemen came. It cost him his life. In disbelief, Lasar contacted hospitals and made the rounds of shelters in a city that stank with an odor she compared to burnt handles of cooking pots. Each day she relived the horror of 9-11. She would close her curtains against a view of the Empire State Building, fearing she might see a plane strike that too. When a friend told her President Bush had lauded her brother's heroism, during a speech at the National Cathedral on Sept. 14, Lasar was far from honored.
"I was horrified. I realized my country was going to use my brother's death to justify killing thousands of people just as innocent. I wrote a letter to the New York Times and asked that we not release forces we would not be able to bring back. I knew that in war it's the innocent who suffer most." She favored a policy of tracking down Osama bin Laden and other killers with the aid of allies. When the bombing started in Afghanistan, "it brought no solace, no comfort, certainly no closure." Lasar sought her own sources of meaning. In January, 2002, along with others who had lost loved ones--in New York, Washington and rural Pennsylvania--she flew to Afghanistan.
"What I saw changed my life," she said. "I saw a country reduced to rubble, and young children who all had the same eyes, brown and big and beautiful--and wide."
She visited orphanages and schools without windows, desks or books, for the Taliban had been there, and after them, American bombs.
Un-detonated cluster bombs and land mines from previous conflicts lay around the countryside, awaiting errant footfalls or curious fingers to unleash death. She slept on dirt floors in hovels heated with kerosene heaters in the homes of families shattered by war. She forged bonds with a woman who had lost her husband and their five children, and whom the American embassy turned away when she sought help, said Lasar.
Still, Lasar loves her country. She despises Saddam Hussein, whom she calls a butcher and a tyrant, but she doesn't think his villainy justifies our killing tens of thousands more in Iraq. She sees herself as a patriot on a mission to quell the bravado of vengeance.
"The path we are on is the least way to make us safe," she said. "Billions hate us now who didn't before. We are going to unleash forces the world has never known. Countries have nuclear weapons who didn't before. We don't need our children going off to die. We don't need another Vietnam. How can we continue to think that ten years after we've toppled Saddam we'll not have yet another enemy to attack?
"The history of the human race for 5,000 years has been nothing but war writ large," she said. "Surely we can aspire to do more with our lives."
You've heard the drums of war. If you'd like to listen to Lasar, here's her schedule:
- 3:30 Friday, March 7 in the City Room of Roane State Community College in Oak Ridge.
- 6:30 p.m. Saturday, March 8 at Westside Unitarian Church.
- 10 a.m. Sunday, March 9 at United Church Chapel on the Hill in Oak Ridge.
- 2:30 p.m. Sunday, March 9 at Oak Ridge Unitarian Church.