Simon Kennedy's mother was killed in the September 11 attacks. He still refuses to hate the perpetrators
Simon Kennedy's brother was working in London when he saw the news: two planes had flown into buildings in New York.
He picked up the phone to Simon.
"I'm just a bit worried about Mum," he said. "Can you have a look at her itinerary?"
Yvonne Kennedy, their 63-year-old mother, was holidaying in the US and she was due to be heading home.
Back in Australia, Simon found her itinerary. "And that's when it started to unfold," he tells ABC RN's Drive.
"That was the start of the unraveling for us."
There was a series of long waits and phone calls before Simon and his brother learnt their mother had been on American Airlines Flight 77, which had been flown into the Pentagon.
Yvonne was one of ten Australians to lose their lives in the series of attacks in America, in which Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial passenger airplanes on September 11, 2001.
She was in the US on a retirement trip after having "worked tirelessly for the Australian Red Cross for many years", Simon says.
"She deserved the trip. She deserved a break. She was going to do this trip through the Rockies and see parts of America she'd never seen and she was happily going to do it on her own.
"And she did it. She got a great deal of that trip in before we lost her," he says.
'You can't heal when you're hating'
Determined to find good in a horrific situation, Simon has resisted feelings of hate in the aftermath of September 11 and in the ensuing two decades.
"I just decided that I was going to let go of hate," he says, describing it as a decision that "developed naturally".
"I couldn't do anything about what had happened. But all I had control over was the kind of life I would live from here on, and that was going to be a life of positivity and making a difference."
It's in this kind of attitude that Yvonne's morals and teachings are recognisable.
Simon says in the 20 years since his mother's death, her principals have been "crucial" in guiding him.
"When we were young boys and teenagers, she was always espousing the values of the Red Cross, the humanity and the neutrality, and she would talk about it constantly. We'd be lectured on the Geneva Convention as 15-year-olds," he laughs.
"I used to roll my eyes as a young fella about it and then, as I grew up, I found myself repeating the things that she'd said, and after we lost her I realised how much had actually sunk in.
"I found myself becoming some kind of echo of my mother in a small way," he says.
The most powerful legacy
Simon's resolve not to hate was tested in 2019 when he had the opportunity to travel to Guantanamo Bay and would come face-to-face with five of the men behind the September 11 terrorist attacks, namely Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-accused.
"It was a week that I was kind of dreading to be honest," say Simon, who felt compelled to go nonetheless.
"Looking through the glass of Camp Justice [the military commission complex] in the gallery, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed walking through the room, I thought, 'Well, how's this going to go? How am I going to go? Am I going to unravel here?'"
Simon wondered if the hate he'd resisted until then would finally emerge – but it didn't.
"I felt pity for the guy," he says.
"And I thought, well, he's hurt a lot of people and he's hurt me really badly. But he has no power over the kind of life that I live now, and no power of the kind of life I choose to live."
That is a life of trying to make a positive difference, whether in the way he raises his kids, or in the kind of work he does, as a comedian, where he uses humour to unpack serious topics like racism.
Simon drew again on his mum's teachings in the face of the anti-Muslim sentiment that followed the September 11 attacks, and whenever he heard discussions about people of Islamic faith "as if they were a problem".
"I started to hear my mum in my own head going, 'No, no, this is not okay. This is not the way we talk about people. We're all humans and we all deserve respect.'"
It's the message Simon says we can all take from the September 11 attacks.
"Unity in a society is the best win you can have," he says.
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