On May 2, 2011, thousands of revelers flooded the World Trade Center site to celebrate the U.S. military’s killing of Osama bin Laden. Teenagers with little memory of a world without the Al-Qaeda leader swung from street signs. Newscasters swooned.
Though Orlando and Phyllis Rodriguez had lost their son, Gregory, in the attacks of 9/11, they did not celebrate. Celebrating revenge, they say, is not in their makeup.
Phyllis is a self-described secular Jew brought up in an activist family that eschewed religion. Orlando, who calls himself a “secular rationalist,” is a professor in Fordham’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology.
The two never figured that they would become the voice of nonviolence and forgiveness in the face of unspeakable horror. But with the premiere of a documentary about them—titled Not in Our Son’s Name—coming up at Fordham on Feb. 24, the role is befitting. The film portrays an unlikely friendship that developed between the Rodriguezes and the mother of one of the terrorists. Gerry Blaszczak, S.J., will moderate a question and answer session after the screening.
“We had the same position against violence on September 10,” said Phyllis, “but it wasn’t until afterward that people listened to us.”
The documentary takes its name from a letter the couple penned to The New York Times following the 9/11 attacks. The letter argued against starting a war in response to the attacks, saying it would “not avenge our son’s death” and would only add to the “dying, suffering, and nursing [of]further grievances against” the United States.
The couple went on to befriend Aicha El-Wafi, the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, the “20th hijacker”. Orlando even testified for the defense in opposition to giving Moussaoui the death penalty following his conviction.
The film, which will be shown on Feb. 24 at 5:30 p.m. in Keating First Auditorium, documents the couple’s journey from grief and rage to forgiveness.
“It’s a great opportunity when you’re challenged by someone who says, ‘So you think Moussaoui should go free?’ to respond, ‘No, I do believe in justice, but not putting him to death,’” said Phyllis. “The best way to deal with such questions is nose-to-nose.”
Indeed, the film is the couple’s way of going nose-to-nose with a wide viewing audience in an ongoing effort to stop the cycle of vengeance, even though they initially did not want to get involved.
“In doing the film, we thought we were going to have to stick our face out there and have people judge us again,” said Orlando. “But we felt it was our duty to do it—just like testifying at the trial was, and having a friendship with Aicha was the right thing to do.”
Both Orlando and Phyllis believe that it is also in one’s self-interest to find ways to forgive.
“It means not allowing ourselves to be consumed by hate and vengeance every day,” said Phyllis.
A specialist in criminology, Orlando said his research into terrorists’ motivations helped him to understand and, eventually, to forgive.
“In the social sciences, we’re trained to be empathetic,” he said. “We try to look at a situation and ask, ‘Why did this person do that?’ But in the end, empathy has to come from within.”
The Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies contributed to the production and is hosting the film screening.
“We wanted first to support our colleague and to make sure the film would be completed,” said Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, the Center’s associate director. “But it’s also such a testimonial to set aside one’s personal grief and make so much good come out of the worst thing that could happen to a person. The world should know that certainly, but Fordham should know about it first.”
“Fordham takes its mission seriously,” Orlando said, recalling that, during the initial days of the tragedy, the outpouring of support they received from members of the Fordham community was considerable. “They acted as Christians.”
Although he approached the tragedy personally as a father and professionally as a secular rationalist, he said that over time Christianity “had more to say to me about it than any secular philosophy or science.”
“It has a profound understanding of human nature and the way in which our violent nature can be addressed,” he said.