After September 11th

Well, there has certainly been a great deal of reaction to my earlier essay on the families of 9/11 victims and the continual search for blame. Whether you agreed or disagreed with my original idea, the responses were lucid and respectful, and that is always appreciated.

I wanted to follow up that original piece with a few more thoughts and some responses to the comments made. If I don’t refer to your comments specifically, it doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate each one. I’m more trying to respond to the opinions expressed.

First, in case I didn’t make it clear before, believe me when I say that my heart goes out to those families.

For more than two weeks after 9/11 happened, I was stuck in an edit bay at the television station, editing that horrific footage that came in from satellite feed after satellite feed…from people jumping out of windows of a burning skyscraper to bloodied men and women being pulled from the wreckage of what had once been their workplace. I was being bombarded with images of victims whose whereabouts were still unknown at the time…and I was sorting through soundbite after soundbite of family members wanting to know “why.” I have no doubt that if I had spent time with any of these people, my sympathies might be more tolerant, as Carly suggested. I do share their sadness about what happened.

In fact, being in that small room, staring at those big monitors day after day was like attending thousands of wakes at the same time. It was emotionally exhausting. I have never heard Ray Charles’ rendition of “America” the same way again after putting to that music pictures of volunteers helping in the search for survivors and complete strangers of different beliefs, races, and backgrounds coming together as one in the spirit of the country we all love.

Donah42 was quick to suggest that most of the victims aren’t out for political gain…that they are expressing their genuine feelings. I’m sure she’s right.

A few of the family members have had good things to say about the report. Julius Gaifman, who lost his son in the attack, said “We think the commission did a good job of getting into what the problem was without blaming anyone.” Nik Dedvukaj, who lost a brother in the attack, added, “It was just something we never imagined, so no one was prepared. It wasn’t the fault of one administration.”

These two sentiments alone do support the view that the families are looking for answers rather than scapegoats. But what of the following quotes…how do they sound?

David Potori, who lost his brother in the attack, and who is a spokesman of September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, complains, “Everyone said, ‘This is not about blame.’ It was so odd that no one is being blamed. How can 3000 people die and it’s nobody’s fault?”

Ellen Mariani, who lost her husband in the attacks, did not attend the hearing. She says not enough was being done to point fingers at specific individuals. “There are people who need to be blamed,” she said. “There are people that overlooked and failed our loved ones.”

Frank Tatum, who lost his mother in the attacks, revealed the “conspiracy-thinking” mentality: “More than half (of the families)…probably feel we haven’t been told the truth completely.”

The majority of them are just expressing their frustrations as they still struggle to make sense of what happened. But the ones with frustrations strong enough to require one single person to blame or a complete distrust in the system are the ones with whom I have the biggest problem.

They seem to either want someone to ruin in hopes that their target would feel as bad as they feel, or they are already convinced that there is no point in even trying to get at the truth because we’ll never know it, anyway. The latter paves the way for an illogical position: they want action, but no matter what action is taken, they won’t trust it. So why bother? The former is probably a quite natural reaction in the grieving process. But the grieving process must move past this cold-blooded pursuit sooner or later if the families themselves hope to have any sense of closure ever. At the end of the day, no matter who is to blame and who can be trusted, they have still suffered a loss none of us can easily imagine.

What happened doesn’t make sense.
It never will, because most of us aren’t willing to commit suicide the way the hijackers did just to make a point. We all wonder how any of us could be targets of it…yet whether we want to admit it or not, we all are targets. If anything is certain, it’s that those of us who are still alive and able to read these words happened to have been in the right place at the right time because we dodged those planes.

All of us — at least those who have never enlisted — live with the same lack of guarantees. Any of us could be killed by a drunk driver today. Any of us could be in the wrong place at the wrong time and become just another statistic. Any of us could slip away in our sleep. There is no making sense of some things, no matter how hard we try.

I can’t help but wonder whether there are some of the people who fit under the umbrella title of “9/11 Victims’ Families” who resent the fact that we are alive while their loved ones aren’t. That is another natural part of the grieving process. But does it make anyone feel better to know that their life might be traded for someone else’s if a victim’s family member had the chance to do so? How do you deal with people who have that much anger? As Jay said in his comment, “this isn’t about sympathizing with the families, anymore…this is about the proper way to deal with it.”

Each of the more vocal of family members are basically relatives of murder victims. It just so happens that this was a case of mass murder in the extreme. Put yourself in their relatives’ place: if these victims’ family members were members of your own family, after this length of time, would you not be concerned if they still showed such an obsession with finding someone to blame? Would you not advise some kind of grief counselling? Would you not hope they’d move past that day? Mumsy calls it a case of the families taking their cues from Bush…that his rhetoric about vengence has fueled the fire. That’s quite possible. But at what point do we say, “Enough of this rage!” At what point is it allowable to question what purpose it really serves?

Putting a price on the loss.
Consider family members of other victims of violent death for a moment. Why is the loss of 9/11 family members, for example, any greater than that of the family whose loved one finds himself staring down the barrel of a loaded gun, and who, despite obeying the robber’s every demand, still ends up shot to death? Why should the 9/11 family members receive millions of dollars from the government because it failed to protect their loved ones, when the family of the robbery victim doesn’t automatically have the same chance to collect such a sum against law enforcement that failed to check the background of the robber who ended up with a gun and failed to monitor that person’s whereabouts at any given moment?

One difference, of course, is that the robber can be singled out as the sole guilty party. He is the one who pulled the trigger. He can be caught. He can be punished.

On September 11th, the “robbers” who directly stole those many lives from us died with their victims. It is ironic that we must depend on a higher authority for making sure that those murder received “eternal justice” since they are no longer available to us to inflict our own version of justice on: we don’t have the benefit of their presence to parade before news cameras and to send to jail or the electric chair, so for some reason we are searching for someone else to punish. As Barbaramck said in her comment, even Bush’s head on a platter will do nothing to bring those victims back to life. And I add this: considering the myriad failures that occurred in our intelligence agencies, does anyone honestly believe that any one man can be fully responsible for all of it?

But this keeps coming back to the same question: why is the loss experienced by those families potentially worse than any loss any of the rest of us might have already experienced in our own way, or may experience anytime we lose a loved one to some kind of violent death, terrorism or not?

Monica asks whether I would want to find out who is to blame if I lost a loved one the way they did? Surely. After almost three years, would I still be engaging in the single-minded pursuit of one sole individual on whose shoulders all of my anger and blame could be placed? I’d like to hope not. Would I welcome friends pulling me aside and pointing out how such behavior isn’t necessarily healthy? Absolutely.

Readmereadyou and Redheka indicated that they were happy that the families were exercising Freedom of Speech. I do not suggest that they shouldn’t. I’m not sure, however, that I clearly understand what it is that they’re trying to tell me…or what it is that they really are looking for.

Another way to look at it.
Let’s all recall that Rhode Island nightclub fire, in which the Great White‘s pyrotechnic display sparked a blaze that killed 80 people.

Who is to blame for this?

The band, who may or may not have cleared the pyrotechnics with the owners of the club? The owners themselves, who allowed pyrotechnics to be used in their club, knowingly or not? The fire marshall, who didn’t check that club on that specific night before that fateful concert?

How about the company that manufactured the foam that caught fire?

How about the club’s insurance company?

How about the band’s manager?

How about former employees of the club who were working that night?

How about the WPRI-TV videographer who some accused of impeding concert-goers from leaving the club while he was shooting footage?

How about CBS, the network itself, because WPRI-TV is a CBS affiliate, and that station hired the photographer accused of impeding the concert-goers’ escape?

How about Anheuser-Busch, who some say contributed to overcrowding of the club because its beer was sold there?

How about Clear Channel Broadcasting, because it promoted the concert on its radio station, WHJY?

Is this list beginning to sound outlandish? Guess what! All of those I’ve just listed have been named in lawsuits for damages. At what point does the blame end in our society? If we’re searching for it this dilligently, will we ever be satisfied?

The 9/11 victims’ families have, as KathleenGGoode has stated, been well-compensated for their losses monetarily. How many of the victims would have made one million dollars in their lifetime? Okay, that’s not a fair question: you can’t put a price tag on a human life. But it certainly seems that some believe certain lives are being viewed as having been more valuable than others. Is that justice? If money can’t buy happiness, what can such settlements be expected to purchase?

CnABarry04, herself a former military member reminds us that firefighters, police, EMS and military personnel die daily. The difference here, she so rightly suggests, is that aside from the fact that there were civilians who died, it was the sheer number that extended beyond “acceptable” losses — that’s what got our attention this time.

“It couldn’t happen here.”
That was the way many of us — most, in fact — were operating on September 10, 2001. Remember the next morning? Do you recall what went through your minds when you saw the image of the World Trade Center tower on fire? What did you think when you heard the first report that a single plane had crashed into the building? Most people didn’t immediately assume terrorism. Many assumed it was some strange accident. The history buffs among us were reminded of that foggy morning of July 28, 1945, when a B-25 bomber crashed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building.

When the second crash occurred, things were different. Almost everyone, whether they actually saw that second airliner smash into the building or not, knew. It wasn’t an accident anymore. It was a terrorist strike. How did we come to that conclusion so easily? Because that thought had always been in the back of our minds…we just chose to ignore it. “It couldn’t happen here.”

How many times had we seen reports of car bombs in the middle east and thought about how lucky we were to live in a country where it could never happen? Carly says the powers that be aren’t completely at fault, but that they also aren’t without responsibility. To the extent that the powers that be are representatives of the public, we all bear that responsibility. We all ignored the warning signs that were clearly present. We hadn’t been living under rocks when the Oklahoma City Bombing happened. We knew the Cole had been targeted. We even recalled that a dastardly plot had attempted to destroy the World Trade Centers ten years earlier. Was it selective amnesia as we went on about our lives, assuming that the government — which most people don’t seem to trust as far as they could throw it — was doing everything it could to protect us?

Did we put pressure on our leaders to track down these people responsible for terrorizing the nation? Did we demand that Clinton retaliate against Osama when the Cole bombing happened? Did we demand that airlines increase security measures, and thereby, our wait time in line, to make sure that airliners were safe from hijacking? Did we demand that skyscrapers and office buildings have added security that would delay our arrival in our office so everyone could pass through magnetometers? What message did we send to our leaders before 9/11? What burden do we share in not having demanded that more be done before an attack happened here?

Yes, Chris…there is no way to prevent death. No matter what happens, we all will die. The best we can hope for is that nothing speeds that process along. Assigning blame is easy; accepting responsibility is the difficult part. Yet we seem to want to blame everyone else. As Elizabeth said so well: “Everybody’s gotta row the boat in order to have smooth sailing.”

While the rest of us didn’t lose a loved one, per se, we all suffered the same loss of security…the same realization that it can happen here…and the burden of responsibility that comes with knowing that we are not safe. It is an unequal loss, to be sure. But we all lost. “Everyone can be the enemy, and you’re never really safe,” CnABarry04 says. It’s a sobering fact, but it is the truth.

I am reminded of a line from a wonderful movie, “Fail-Safe.” If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend a trip to the video store. In it, a mechanical failure sends an American fighter squadron into Russia with the intent of dropping nuclear bombs on Moscow. The President of the United States, after making a shocking decision to prevent World War III, asks the Soviet Chairman the all-important question:

“Today we had a taste of the future. Do we learn from it or do we go on the way we have? What do we do, Mr. Chairman? What do we say to the dead?”

It seems to me that we have two options:

The first option is to focus all of our attention on chasing down all leads to figure out what single individual failed — assuming, of course that we are somehow able to conveniently forget that there were many people and systems that failed. Then we must decide what punishment we can possibly inflict on a single individual that comes close to the massive loss of life our nation experienced. It seems to me that both the determination of any single person who was totally responsible for every systematic failure and the race to agree on a punishment thatfits the crime are futile efforts.

That leaves us with our second option: we can focus all of our attention on making sure the same failures do not occur again. We cannot do both.

Tara believes that the latter is what the victims’ families are really after. I hope she is correct. I cannot honestly say that I sense that some of them aren’t out for blood. Maybe they are completely entitled to feel that way, even after this much time…I’m not sure. Those who are, as I’ve already said, can’t be focusing all of their attention on preventing the next attack.

Call me a cynic, but I can’t see their disappointment that the nonpartisan committee’s failure to condemn either side as being proof that they’re only out to protect future victims.

I hope I’m wrong.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.