Show Hide image

The NS Interview: Donna Marsh O’Connor, peace activist

“I can’t believe I haven’t seen my daughter in ten years”

You lost your daughter in the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11. Does the tenth anniversary feel particularly painful?
You want people to remember the date for the right reason - that hate engenders hideous things. Time heals in some ways, but I can't believe I haven't seen her in ten years. I did an interview in New York City recently and came home on the plane, and when the lights dimmed in the cabin, I lost it. I didn't want to be on my own on a plane sobbing. I just kept thinking about the day of her birth.

Do you remember 11 September 2001 clearly?
Of course. To be honest, I don't want to remember. It was absolutely exquisite: the crispest, clearest, sunniest morning on the East Coast, warm and beautiful, and sad because it was getting near the end of summer - but it was almost so beautiful that it made you OK with that.

How did 9/11 transform the US?
From that moment, there was a decision on the part of the Bush administration to give up the American way of life. In so many significant ways - the constitution, the Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, military tribunals, torture, water- boarding, Halliburton [oilfields], endless war.

Has your perception of your country changed?
I was raised on this heady idea that America had an ethical and moral standing in the world. I loved America. I would go to assembly and sing "America Is Beautiful", "The Star-Spangled Banner", "The Marine Anthem". To find that at the centre of it was this horrible myth, or the crafting of a lie . . . I don't know any more.

Since then, you've become an activist. Why?
I still cringe when people call me an activist. It had a resonance that you were boringly committed to a cause at the expense of everything else in your life. I taught writing and rhetoric in American public discourse. And then this happened and suddenly everything I valued about this country in fundamental ways shifted.

What did you feel you had lost?
The freedom to speak about any issue and still be patriotic - suddenly there were these subjects that could not be discussed. I think of 9/11 as a hideous murder that was perhaps used as a political measure. It got made into something much larger to keep us at war.

You have said you would never celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden. Why?
I never could hate Bin Laden. When he decided to bomb embassies and the USS Cole, and make 9/11 his project, he committed suicide. I make no apologies that I see him as a human being. And a murderer - a mass murderer - but there are other mass murderers who aren't held so accountable. Please don't misunderstand me: I am not saying he should be forgiven - but there are people who capitalised on 9/11 to commit even greater atrocities in this world.

How do you think President Obama has handled these issues?
Obama had the opportunity to drive home the cost of war, to talk honestly to the American people about everything George Bush had left us. But his eye was on his eight-year term as president. You are elected for one term, and you need to serve that one term with integrity and dignity. In my mind, he has not done that.

Do you believe that Islamophobia is a growing problem in the US?
Absolutely. People have been set up as scapegoats. They were treated as war criminals. If we give a bunch of zealots microphones as large as the one they've given to Michele Bachmann, we will be fighting each other for a long time.

Is there anything that gives you hope?
I have lived my entire life as an optimist. But everything tells me this is going to get worse before it turns back again. I fear for my children. I'm afraid that things are going to play out in ways that are devastating. Like fires that are natural and helpful because they burn everything off and allow things to restart, it's the same with civilisation - we will probably burn ourselves off until we grow up again.

Do you vote?
Absolutely.

I assume not for the Republicans?
No. Locally, I have a lot of Republican friends; they're dear, compassionate people. So, at the local level, I'd vote Republican, but nationally, when the stakes are this high and the discourse is so fragmented, I have not voted Republican.

Is there anything you regret?
There are a lot of things I regret. Most of them have to do with that morning.

Is there a plan?
The world is very short on compassion. I'm going to continue to write and speak, and hope that has a half-life.

Are we all doomed?
No. Something has to happen so that the ugly doesn't always have to win out. The ugly has much more powerful physical weapons, but we have much more powerful spiritual weapons and we just need to get them heard.

Defining Moments

1950s Born in the Bronx, New York
1984 Begins teaching writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University
2001 Her pregnant daughter, Vanessa Lang Langer, dies in the 11 September attacks
2002 Helps found Peaceful Tomorrows, a network of relatives and friends of the attack victims, calling for an end to war
2010 Speaks out in defence of a proposal to build an Islamic community centre near Ground Zero in New York

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, 9/11

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
Show Hide image

Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496