Tom Peek: What I learned from the Dayton's bombing

By Tom Peek Press

Updated:09/16/2010 07:36:23 PM CDT

The angry divisiveness that tarnished this year's 9/11 commemoration brought back the sadness and dismay I felt at age 15 after my mother, Mary Peek, nearly died in the 1970 bombing of the Dayton's (now Macy's) department store.

Mom was combing her hair in the restroom when a bomb exploded in the wastebasket, left there by Kofi Yusef Owusu (then named Gary Hogan), a 15-year-old inspired by the Black Panthers during a time of inflamed political unrest. As Dad tore away the shattered door to retrieve his shrapnel-lacerated wife, a second, much larger bomb waited in a nearby locker. Meant to level the building and kill scores of mobilized police and firefighters, it was discovered minutes before its timed detonation. Four surgeons, two with Vietnam War experience, labored all night to save Mom's life, but the blast permanently damaged her ability to walk, shattered her hearing and scorched her lungs so severely she suffered respiratory problems the rest of her life.

My family might have become embittered, like the vengeful who had planned to burn Qur'ans last Saturday, or like the many readers who posted on the Pioneer Press website hateful responses to an Aug. 22 article about the recently deceased Owusu's memorial service. But our mother, who'd spent years working for social justice and peace, guided us to a deeper, more constructive understanding of the political violence that maimed her. She knew that the bomber — son of a civil rights activist — was too young and wrathful to understand that progress requires not anger, but inner strength, patience and unfailing persistence.

"I know that young man's rage," Mom had said from her hospital bed when told who police had arrested, her own life thwarted by gender discrimination. Her compassionate comment dampened even my father's anger and compelled us to consider the underlying suffering and despair that too often drive people to invite hatred into their hearts.

The explosion ripped apart my mother's body, but her inner strength rallied. She stood firm in her belief that there was no point adding more hate to a situation already out of hand, that revenge could not heal her loss. Never losing faith that people determine the future, she resumed her lifelong civic activism. She also recognized that the bomber's action — and her injuries — were directly tied to larger political and social problems, problems we've done too little to solve in the four decades since the bombing.

To merely vilify terrorists or bolster security is easier than addressing the deprivations and injustices that can contribute to despair-driven violence or confronting the racial, religious and nationalistic prejudices used to justify those inequities. I learned from my mother that solving entrenched problems like these takes courage, self-confidence and hard-headed reason, and that just blaming others — no matter how heinous their acts — can too easily become a justification for accepting things as they are.

In the decades since the bombing — especially after the horrors of 9/11 — I've watched too many Americans, mired in their own fears or crippled by their ignorance of history, fall into the same moral trap Owusu did back in 1970 or that al-Qaeda recruits do now. They lash out against those they judge as "evil" and justify further violence in response, rarely asking "what else may have been behind this attack?" And all the while, more innocents, like my mother, die or are maimed, or are asked to kill and maim for causes fueled by revenge.

In the 1960s and '70s, many Americans strove to soften our divisions, at home and abroad, through education and public policies, but those efforts have steadily waned during my lifetime. Polarized by reactionary politicians and cynical media pundits, our politics is now poisoned with anger, lack of faith in one another, and a deep skepticism that societies can ever achieve understanding, equity and social progress.

As a member of a family struck by political violence, who witnessed firsthand just one victim's struggle to carry on with her life, I cringe when news of terrorism — whether in the Middle East or in our own cities — incites the same brand of hatred that years ago maimed my mother. If we really want to stop the kind of suffering she endured, let's instead start attacking the deeper problems that for too long have spawned such rage.

Tom Peek, formerly of Grey Cloud Island and a graduate of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, is now a writer and teacher on the island of Hawaii. His website is