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Betty Williams Says Protect The Innocents

Peace prize winner: Protect the innocents

By Nicole Sterghos Brochu

September 16, 2001

WEST PALM BEACH -- When Betty Williams learned of Tuesday's terrorist attacks, her first reaction was, "Nuke 'em!"

And this from a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

"I'm not going to lie to you and tell you I haven't been feeling very violent this week," Williams told about 200 South Florida high school students gathered for an annual student council meeting in West Palm Beach on Saturday.

"I'm going through this roller coaster of emotion. It's a pendulum swing from ‘Go get 'em' to ‘No, we can't.'"

Williams, who won the 1976 peace prize for efforts to end strife in Northern Ireland, said it was natural, even human, to want to avenge Tuesday's devastating bloodshed. Even so, she said, America must avoid meting out punishment that may harm innocent people.

"We have to remember that when the first bomb is dropped [in retaliation], there will be young people like you underneath it. Innocents," she said, her voice thick with an Irish brogue.

"There has to be a reaction to this. There's no way around it. Let's hope we respond in a way that will not perpetrate on others what we have suffered."

Williams' quest for peace began 25 years ago when she watched as a car fleeing an exchange of gunfire during the unrest in her native Belfast ran down a mother and her three young children. She held one of the dying girls in her arms and promised that she would fight to keep peace for future generations.

Williams, who now lives in Florida, helped lead marches that united Catholics and Protestants in revulsion to terrorist violence and retaliation. Her work has won numerous international awards.

Now, even this seasoned orator who has seen her fair share of terrorist acts can't avoid the anger and vengeful instinct over the recent attacks on American soil. She hasn't been able to sleep, she said. She's even having a difficult time praying.

Still, Williams said, America has to remain united. And young people must be prepared to oppose students who may harass Arab or Muslim classmates.

"There are bullies everywhere," she said. "Your job now will be to control that. Protect your Muslim and Arab students because they are just as American as you are."

Williams' words resonated throughout the Palm Beach Lakes Community High auditorium, where students responded with two standing ovations and multiple bursts of spontaneous applause.

"She kind of moved the whole feeling from an anger feeling to more of a compassionate feeling," said Danielle Harris, a senior at Boca Raton High School. "It was moving."

Nicole Sterghos Brochu can be reached at or 561-243-6603.

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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