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Stop the War, Plead Parents of NY Victim
14 October 2001
Hours after air strikes on Afghanistan began last week, thousands attended a peace rally in New York. They heard 87-year-old Reuben Schafer, whose grandson Gregory Rodriguez was killed in the World Trade Center on 11 September, read a letter from Gregory's parents, Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez, to President Bush.
It read: 'Your response to the attack does not make us feel better about our son's death... It makes us feel our government is using our son's memory as justification to cause suffering for other sons and parents in other lands.'
The Rodriguez family is part of a growing network of relatives opposing the attacks on Afghanistan. Phyllis Rodriguez, speaking from her Westchester home, said she had been inspired by her son's 'instinctive internationalism' to register her protests. When 14 years old Gregory Rodriguez spent a month studying in Spain and was puzzled to find how much the Spanish hated the French. When he returned home he told his parents: 'Nationalism stinks.' Some 17 years after that Spanish trip, the 31-year-old head of computer security at Cantor Fitzgerald was killed in his office on the 103rd floor of the World Trade Center
'He liked the challenge of the workaday world,' said his mother. He had been at Cantor Fitzgerald for three years following seven years at Salomon Brothers, where he had met his wife of a year, Eliza Soudant.
His tastes, in music as in people, were eclectic: from opera and reggae to Tom Waits and the Beastie Boys. 'He was hungry for life, a very outgoing guy and he loved new experiences and travel,' said Phyllis Rodriquez.
His travels and his work took him to Cuba and Japan, Guatemala and England, hiking, scuba diving and exploring. He liked to get off the beaten track and meet people of different nationalities. Then came 11 September and his parents, like thousands of others, found themselves searching the hospitals and waiting for news. Calls were already being made for the bombing of Afghanistan, and a CBS/ New York Times poll found that 75 per cent of those interviewed favored war, even if it meant the deaths of innocent civilians. The Rodriguez family decided they had to speak out so that such retaliation was not carried out in their son's name.
'I feel the American public has to join the international community in a meaningful way, and stop being an isolationist nation,' said Phyllis Rodriguez.
'One way we can do it is by educating ourselves. It's not part of our national consciousness - the conditions under which people live in Iraq, Rwanda, Paraguay. That's the first step: to learn about the sufferings and joys of other people. We have to find out why we are hated in other parts of the world.'
The family have made contact with others who have lost members in the attacks and who feel as they do. In his memorial service speech shortly after the attacks, the President singled out an unnamed man 'who could have saved himself' but instead 'stayed until the end at the side of his quadriplegic friend'. The man was Abe Zelmanowitz, a 54-year-old computer programmer who worked for Blue Cross Blue Shield in the World Trade Center.
Matthew Lasar, Zelmanowitz's nephew, said: 'He was a warm and compassionate person, very principled, with a wonderful droll sense of humor.' Zelmanowitz had telephoned his family after the first plane struck to explain that he could not leave his friend, wheelchair-bound Ed Beyea, behind. 'He called his brother Jack, and said he was not going to come back. The two of them met their ends in the building.'
A devout Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn, Zelmanowitz was in the garment trade until it collapsed in the Seventies and studied computer programming so that he could begin a new career.
Lasar, 46, said his cousin, Saul, and his friends had been searching the hospitals on 11 September and someone had told a reporter about his uncle's decision not to abandon his friend. The White House heard of it and it was decided to include the story in the President's speech.
Lasar said : 'I can't put words into his [Zelmanowitz's] mouth, but I know a little about Afghanistan and I know it [bombing] would result in a famine of unbelievable consequences. I don't think people in this country realize we are so powerful. In terms of my own grief, I don't know how to describe it, but in the private place I am right now I don't want to see any more bloodshed. I felt I had an obligation to say that.'
As for the pursuit of those who planned the attacks, Phyllis Rodriguez said she had hoped for 'due process, a fair trial, no shoot-first, bomb-first policy. It may be painful and slow, but it would be the best testament to my son and to all of those who died'.