In the winter of 2009, I was in Palm Beach, Florida conducting research for Akbar Ahmed's Journey into America, an anthropological study on American identity through the lens of Muslims. Out of the thousands of interviews we conducted in our year-long travels throughout the U.S., David McCourt, a retired businessman who lost his family on 9/11, gave us the most intense interview.
We sat down with McCourt on an early weekday morning in the lobby of a Palm Beach hotel. He shared with us his heartbreaking story. He was married to Ruth Clifford, who was from Cork, Ireland, and lived for a period in the mid-90s until the early 2000s in Newton, Massachusetts, where the couple gave birth to their daughter Juliana Valentine. On 9/11/2001, McCourt's life fell to pieces when Ruth and Juliana died when their United Airways Flight 175 slammed into the World Trade Center.
McCourt's was a deeply powerful and emotional interview. The pain which he showed in light of the loss of his wife and daughter on 9/11 was evident in his facial and body language. You could not only see his pain, but you could also feel it as he revealed how 9/11 nearly destroyed his life.
The interview was tense because it felt that McCourt was interviewing us, a team of young American researchers interested in improving relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, just as much as we were interviewing him. He was curious as to why we had such a strong interest in understanding Islam, the religion which, in the eyes of many, justified the attacks of 9/11.
McCourt could have easily shut himself off from the world after the loss of Ruth and Juliana. He could have easily hated Muslims. He could have bashed the faith of over 1 billion souls in the aftermath of dealing with his tremendous grief. McCourt, however, transcended the hatred and the trap of stereotypes. He wanted to be educated, he wanted to counter the emotions which lead to terrorist attacks.
In a speech he gave at Temple Emanu-El in Waterford, Connecticut synagogue, McCourt shared his plan to fight the very hatred which led to 9/11:
"Ruth and Juliana were my life and my passion... I was going to end it all. If faith could justify taking these two beautiful creatures, I just didn't want to go on. But something kept me going... It's been a journey of spiritual awakening to go from where I was... If you don't have the spiritual awakening, you don't survive... What we have to do is to start with the children in this country and teach them tolerance, compassion and understanding."
McCourt's spiritual awakening was non-violent, education-based and compassionate. Along with the Cuomo family of New York, he helped found B.R.A.V.E. Juliana, a program of the non-profit organization Help USA, to teach nonviolence and conflict resolution to children. 'What we have do is to start with the children in this country and teach them tolerance, compassion and understanding,' McCourt said in 2002.
In addition to B.R.A.V.E., McCourt also founded the Juliana Valentine McCourt Children's Education fund with Mary Bryant, whom he married in 2011 in Niantic, Connecticut. The purpose of McCourt's education fund is "to educate young people anywhere in the virtues of generosity, kindness, and the acceptance of differences among cultures, races, and religions." The fund continues to be administered through the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut.
Moreover, McCourt created a garden on the grounds of New London's Lyman Allyn Art Museum, which was established to honor the memories of Juliana and Ruth McCourt. He called it a "metaphor for seasons and renewal and healing for those who are left behind."
When Osama bin Laden was killed in a U.S.-led raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, McCourt was asked by a local reporter if he felt any sense of revenge. "Revenge isn't the word I would use," he said. "I would use the word justice. I try to keep the anger and hatred out of my spirit."
McCourt's story of immeasurable grief and the ability to overcome hatred makes him another hero of the 9/11 tragedy. He recently passed away at the age of 71 after a battle with cancer. His example is one which should not be forgotten.
Even in the hardest moments, when hatred and anger can take over our mind, heart, and soul, we should remember the people who understand that the only way to forge peace is through education, understanding, and tolerance.