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Understanding Judy Clark, Pt. II: Colleen Kelly

Judith Clark

Judy Clark’s story is a familiar one to most Rockland residents. In 1981, Clark drove the getaway car in the Weather Underground’s robbery of a Brinks armored car in Nyack when guard Peter Paige and two Nyack police officers, Waverly Brown and Ed O’Grady, where fatally shot. Part I of this series included an interview with journalist Tom Robbins. In Part II, Rule of Law Initiative Coordinator Colleen Kelly talks to Jennifer Mancuso about losing loved ones to tragedy.
by Jennifer Mancuso
On September 11th, 2001, Colleen Kelly’s brother Bill was killed during the terror attacks at the World Trade Centers. Inspired by non-violent response to deadly conflict, Colleen met several other like-minded family members, forming September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. She is currently the coordinator of their Rule of Law initiative, working on issues of crimes against humanity, Guantanamo military commissions, torture and restorative justice. Colleen has lived in the Bronx for 31 years. She has three young adult children and is a nurse practitioner at a Montefiore school health clinic. Both jobs have greatly helped her put the theory of conflict resolution into practice.
I was introduced to Colleen Kelly by Judy Clark. Colleen wanted to understand how radical idealism could lead someone to disregard innocent human lives. Judy served as a surrogate to try and help Colleen find the understanding she was seeking. I wanted to speak to Colleen because I am deeply inspired by her commitment to restorative justice. Colleen is an amazing person. She chose to use her grief to advocate for non-violent response and to actively seek to understand her brother’s killers in an attempt to restore humanity in the face of this tragedy.
Jennifer Mancuso: I have lost loved ones, but never to violent crime. Can you talk a little about the difference of losing a loved one to violent crime?
Colleen Kelly: There’s trauma. There’s real trauma. I work as a nurse practitioner, I work in adolescent medicine, I’ve worked in very difficult places with street vans and homeless youth and I see that trauma affects every cell in your body. I’m convinced. I understood for the first time, in a very visceral way, what trauma does to you. So losing someone to political violence or a violent death, there’s not only the loss, and I’m not saying this to demean anyone else’s loss, but there’s loss and then there’s another layer, there’s a layer of thinking about how they died and what their last moments were like and the agony that comes along with that and it took me a long time to stare that in the face and to accept that and to put that trauma in its place. Its real and its awful and we all deal with it differently. I was fortunate that I had really great help and that I wanted to hit it head on. I didn’t want this affecting the rest of my life for the rest of my life. In large part for my children, I didn’t want to lose myself to this event when I had already lost my brother.
How did you come to meet Judy Clark?
A little bit of background is important.  After 9/11, there were many, many people who were captured and brought to Guantanamo Bay, over 700 men initially. Ultimately, five of those men were charged with many crimes. One of which was conspiracy to commit the murders that happened on Sept 11. These five men were initially charged at Guantanamo, then they were charged in federal courts; it’s been back and forth, back and forth. But in May 2012, formal charges were made against these five men. Since that time, there have been pre-trial hearings. Even though those trials began in 2012, in 2008 there was an opportunity for family members to enter a  lottery system to go attend the trials, no matter where they were at their various stages. I had put my name in for that lottery in 2008. Once the arraignment happened in 2012, after all the back and forth, when I knew the trial may happen through the military commission process, I started thinking really hard about what it would mean to see these five men face to face. Because when you go to a trial, they are right there, right in front of you. I was scared of that. I was scared of my reaction. I didn’t know if I would run through a door and try to punch them. I didn’t know physically how I would feel and I didn’t know emotionally how I would feel. I didn’t understand how someone could think that what they believed in was so right that they could kill somebody else. It sounds naïve, but that really, really bothers me. Of course those people exist, but I wanted to understand why. How did they get to that point?I like thinking about the big questions of the world. So this was a big question. How is one man’s terrorist another man’s freedom fighter? Who gets to decide? When is it ever right, or not, to take someone else’s life? Those were the big questions that were haunting me.
So I mentioned the trials and my thoughts surrounding them to several people. A friend who knew Judy Clark said, “I don’t know the answer, but I think I know someone who may be helpful for you to talk to.” He suggested I write to Judy Clark. I wrote to her and I explained “I’m a 9-11 family member. I’m really struggling with the notion of how someone’s ideology takes over their humanity. A mutual friend suggested I come to talk to you.” And she wrote me back and she said, yes, she would meet with me.
And how did that meeting go? Did it help you answer your questions?
I’m also the kind of person who is skeptical. So it takes me a while with people that I don’t know well. I work as a nurse practitioner, and I feel like I have a good sense of people. Part of my job is sizing things up within a couple of minutes; I do that many, many times throughout the day. Having said that, I am also skeptical, and I was skeptical when I met Jud. After I read up about her and read about her crime, I thought “Yeah, I’ll bet she can tell me something about my big question.”
God listens for specific reasons. The day that I first met Judy happened to be adolescent visiting day at the prison. Now many of my patients have parents in jail so as I was waiting the two hours or so to get in to see Judy, busloads of teenagers were coming in from the city and around the state and it was so helpful for me as a medical provider to see how that day unfolded for these kids. Not only in the waiting area and how they behaved, but also when they were united with their mothers in the cafeteria.
Judy and I talked for four and a half hours that day. You can’t bring anything in there, but I left that day and drove home and wrote down as much as I could remember from our conversations. I wanted to keep it close and think a lot about what she had talked about.
What was your experience like with Judy? And how did it help you with your big questions?
You know, I’m not out to convince anyone to change their mind about Judy’s potential release and her crime and her guilt. I know how I feel about it after meeting her many, many times after that. I feel like I am a pretty good judge of character. Judy owned it. Judy owns her crime. She owns what she did. Not only does she own that moment of her life, but she owns the years building up to that moment. Because that moment didn’t just happen. It didn’t just occur one day. That moment took 20 years to build up. And probably the most helpful part about talking to her was  understanding all the little moments that built up and led to the Brinks robbery. Not only her life growing up and her family situation, but also why she became radicalized and how — how she became radicalized and why and how that ideology took over her.
And I thought, ‘why isn’t the federal government going to talk to Judy? If we want to find out how to solve the problem of political extremism, you have people sitting in prison who know a lot about this. It may not be apple-to-apple, but it’s an apple and a banana. I learned a lot from talking to Judy.
I learned that the ideology takes over. It’s kind of like addiction. The addiction takes over. Nothing else really matters. You do anything. You forget everybody. You forget your kids. You forget your physical health. It takes over everything. Extremist ideology. And it’s also interesting, how do you break through that? I feel like Judy has some really honest things to say about what worked for her, what allowed the crack to open. It was awfulness. A lot of really difficult things occurred to her. Before she could see the awfulness of what she had done and what she was involved in, she had to be willing to take a hard look at what led her to that day. That meant a lot to me. She’s not bullshitting about stuff. She’s for real.
She’s not allowed to have contact with the family. And I get that. I wouldn’t want Khalid Sheik Mohammed contacting me. And I get that. It’s a big unknown. It’s a big leap of faith. How would the family know that she’s for real? How do they know that it’s not just a ploy to get out of prison? They wouldn’t know that because they haven’t had the opportunity. It seems that her ideology is frozen for them.
I think about the five 9/11 guys and I feel the same way. Khalid Sheik Mohammed dresses in army fatigues. He’s flippant. He writes to the President. I read these things; they’re hateful. So I get the other side of it as well.
It’s easier for me to talk to Judy because Judy didn’t hurt my brother. Khalid Sheik Mohammed did. I’ve never talked to Khalid. I don’t know how I would feel having a conversation with him. I’ve thought about it. But he’s never professed his guilt. Actually, he’s proud of what he did.
It’s different.. If he was expressing remorse, it’s hard to say how you would feel because that’s not what he’s doing. So you can’t predict what you might feel.
Yes. I don’t have any expectations about him apologizing right now. What I desperately want and still don’t have is a window into Khalid Sheik Mohammed and maybe if the trial ever happens, I’ll have a window in to see, “How did you get to this point of being a member of Al Qaeda and plotting this destruction and mass murder?” I’m interested in that for a very selfish reason. I don’t want to turn away from that question because I don’t want that to happen to anyone else. Instead of locking people away in jail and never hearing from them again, I want something to be hopeful about. I want there to be some meaning in all this. For my brother Bill to have died meaninglessly and not have understanding that would be really, really awful. If there is any meaning to be gleaned from his death or any kind of goodness or prevention to come from this, I guess that’s what I hope for. And I guess that’s why these questions are so important to me. And why Judy’s answers are so important to me.
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