NEWS / CONTEXT

9/11 and the Death of Accountability
Karen Ocamb
9/1/2011

I never visited the World Trade Center Twin Towers when I lived in New York City. There was no urgency. They were such an iconic part of the landscape—the tallest buildings in the world—and there was no question they would always be there, a majestic symbol of America’s financial strength, power and brash ingenuity.

The Twin Towers were a symbol, too, for America’s resiliency after a terrorist attack. On Feb. 26, 1993, with training from Al Qaeda and financing from his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi Yousef detonated a truck bomb in the garage under the North Tower. He’d hoped the explosion would topple one massive 110-story structure onto the other, killing thousands. The blast opened a 98-foot-wide hole through four layers of concrete—but the towers remained standing.

The bomb killed seven people and injured 1,042 others, many during the chaotic evacuation as the chemical smoke rose to the 93rd floor of both towers. Seventeen kindergarteners were trapped for five hours between the 35th and 36th floors—descending from the observation deck.

Journalist Steve Coll subsequently reported that Yousef sent letters to newspapers saying that if the U.S. didn’t cut ties to Israel, there would be more attacks. Yousef initially escaped to Pakistan, but by 1997, he and five co-conspirators were convicted of bombing-related charges. Meanwhile, his uncle, later known as KSM, planned for Sept. 11, 2001.

During the trial, it was revealed that an Egyptian informant told the FBI about the bomb plot on Feb. 6, 1992, more than a year earlier. Weirdly, a jury later determined that the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey was 68 percent responsible for the bombing, while the terrorists were only culpable for 32 percent—a verdict upheld in 2008 by a court of appeals.

Port Authority Executive Director Neil Levin died on Sept. 11 during the coordinated terrorist attacks; he had eaten breakfast at Windows on the World, on the 106th floor of the North Tower.

We subsequently learned from the 9/11 Commission that an FBI field office had alerted superiors about Middle Eastern men learning how to fly airplanes—but not how to land. We also learned that Richard Clarke, National Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, warned the U.S. intelligence agencies and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice that Al Qaeda posed a significant risk to the U.S. 9/11 Commissioner Jamie Gorelick said the documents “would set your hair on fire” and noted that the warning “plateaued at a spike level for months” before 9/11. According to Clarke, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz discounted the warnings: “You give bin Laden too much credit. He could not do all these things like the 1993 attack on New York, not without a state sponsor.”

Clarke is the only high-ranking official to have apologized to the families of the 9/11 victims for the government’s failure to prevent the tragedy.

The world watched the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and witnessed the aftermath of attacks on the Pentagon and the downed plane in Shanksville, Penn., where passengers prevented hijacked United Flight 93 from reaching the Capitol. The world watched as firefighters and police rushed to the rescue, hoping those waving for help would be saved. And then—until the pictures were censored—we saw the jumpers.

In 2009, Tom Junod wrote a brilliant essay for Esquire about AP photographer Richard Drew’s iconic shot of the unidentified falling man. He challenges us not to turn away.

“They began jumping not long after the first plane hit the North Tower, not long after the fire started,” Junod wrote. “They kept jumping until the tower fell. They jumped through windows already broken, and then, later, through windows they broke themselves. They jumped to escape the smoke and the fire; they jumped when the ceilings fell and the floors collapsed; they jumped just to breathe once more before they died. They jumped continually, from all four sides of the building, and from all floors above and around the building’s fatal wound. They jumped from the offices of Marsh & McLennan, the insurance company; from the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond-trading company; from Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 106th and 107th floors—the top. For more than an hour and a half, they streamed from the building, one after another, consecutively rather than en masse, as if each individual required the sight of another individual jumping before mustering the courage to jump himself or herself. One photograph, taken at a distance, shows people jumping in perfect sequence, like parachutists, forming an arc composed of three plummeting people, evenly spaced. Indeed, there were reports that some tried parachuting, before the force generated by their fall ripped the drapes, the tablecloths, the desperately gathered fabric, from their hands. They were all, obviously, very much alive on their way down, and their way down lasted an approximate count of 10 seconds. They were all, obviously, not just killed when they landed, but destroyed, in body though not, one prays, in soul. One hit a fireman on the ground and killed him; the fireman’s body was anointed by Father Mychal Judge, whose own death shortly thereafter was embraced as an example of martyrdom after the photograph—the redemptive tableau—of firefighters carrying his body from the rubble made its way around the world.”

Later we learned that Father Mychal Judge, a beloved Franciscan priest and the Chaplain of New York’s Fire Department, was gay. Like other LGBT rescue workers that day, he, too, rushed into danger to do his job. But I imagine he wrestled with this faith as he heard the constant thud as those jumpers hit the ground: I imagine, too, that he held close their souls and didn’t judge their decision to escape the hell created by the Jihadi terrorists in the name of their religion. Out of respect, Father Mychal Judge became the first recorded victim of 9/11.

Also defying the once age-old stereotype of the limp-wristed, weak and frightened gay man were David Charlebois, the gay co-pilot of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, and businessman Mark Bingham, who joined a handful of other passengers in trying to re-take Flight 93. Bingham supported “maverick” Sen. John McCain, who tearfully spoke at his memorial in San Francisco.

“I very well may owe my life to Mark Bingham and the others who summoned the enormous amount of courage and love necessary to deny those depraved hateful men their terrible triumph,” McCain said. “Such a debt we will incur for life. I will try very hard to discharge my public duties in a manner that honors their memory.”

One can only imagine how the victims of 9/11 dealt with their final frightening moments. But I imagine that Ronald Gamboa, 33, and Dan Brandhorst, 42, partners for 13 years who were on their way home to L.A. from Boston on United Flight 175, spent their time comforting their 3-year-old adopted son, David, before smashing into the second tower. Brandhorst and Gamboa were founding members of the gay Pop Luck Club.

After 9/11, we discovered that the closet forced many LGBT survivors to grieve in silence. Others, however, such as Edgar Rodriguez, then-Executive Director of the Gay Officers Action League, did their part as the nation came together. He worked on “the pile,” the name given the remains of the disintegrated Twin Towers: “The faint smell of putrid smoke seeped through my gas mask as I passed buckets of unrecognizable ruin to cops and firefighters I’d never seen before. For hours we quietly passed buckets filled with lost hopes and dreams in a silence I have never before experienced.”

And then came the anguish of second-class citizenship—the painful indignity of officially being denied partnership recognition and benefits by the federal 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. Meanwhile, longtime anti-gay Rev. Jerry Falwell appeared on equally anti-gay Rev. Pat Robertson’s 700 Club on Sept. 13, pointed to gays and lesbians and said, “You helped this happen.” They were forced to apologize.

Fund Special Master Kenneth Feinberg said on NBC’s Meet the Press, “[Same-sex couples are] left out of my program to the extent that their own state doesn’t include them. ... Otherwise, Tim, I would find myself getting sued in every state by people claiming that I’m not following how the state distributes money. I can’t get into that local battle. I’ve got to rely on state law.”

New York Gov. George Pataki signed legislation giving domestic partners of 9/11 victims the right to state workers’ compensation and crime-victim payments. California Gov. Gray Davis also signed legislation on Sept. 12, 2002, with Keith Bradkowski—whose life partner, Jeff Collman, was a flight attendant on American Airlines flight 11 that crashed into the first tower—in attendance.

In 2003, Bradkowski testified before a Senate subcommittee considering banning marriage rights for same-sex couples.

“Two years ago we were all united against the common threat of terrorism,” Bradkowski testified. “Now, less than two years later, I am sitting here and being told that my relationship was a threat to our country. ... The terrorists who attacked this country killed people not because they were gay or straight—but because they were Americans. It is heart-wrenching that our own government does not protect its citizens equally, gay and straight, simply because they are Americans.”

The following year, in order to win re-election, Bush and his political “architect” Karl Rove (who many believe also “stole” the 2000 election from Vice President Al Gore) advocated a federal constitutional amendment banning marriage equality and launched anti-gay marriage initiatives in 11 states. As James C. Moore and Wayne Slater note in Bush’s Brain, Rove has a long history of using soulless divisiveness to win elections, by whatever means necessary.

The 9/11 Commission and filmmaker Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11, among scores of others, have detailed the horrendous mistakes made before the “evil” Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by the arrogant and inept Bush administration. But it is the “evil” arrogance created in reaction to 9/11 that threatens to truly undermine the republic. Consider: spurning the Geneva Convention; the immoral torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison; the Orwellian justification and lack of evidence for the government’s allegations against Guantanamo Bay detainees; the USA PATRIOT Act and warrantless wiretapping and surveillance against innocent U.S. citizens; the outing of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame (once a crime of treason) as an act of political vengeance against her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson; Bush and his administration’s unadulterated mendacity (“mushroom cloud”) to justify a pre-emptive war against Iraq; giving no-bid military contracts to cronies and friends, including the bin Laden family—the list goes on. Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean called the Bush White House “worse than Watergate” for its secrecy and dirty tricks. New Yorker writer Jane Mayer exposed the Bush administration’s concept of American justice in The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals.

And now Dick Cheney is out flogging his memoir, In My Time, accepting no accountability, issuing no apology and once again saying waterboarding—internationally viewed as torture—“works.” It is widely believed that if Cheney were to travel to Europe, he could be arrested and put on trial as a war criminal. Why isn’t the man who caused death and ruination to thousands not called “evil,” too?

Many of us blanched when Al Gore took the classy high road and conceded the 2000 election. We boiled when not one U.S. Senator stood up with the Congressional Black Caucus to officially contest the way the electoral process was conducted. But many more of us were outraged when President Barack Obama said he wanted to “look forward, not back” and let the Bush administration skate on torture and other actions that would have landed the rest of us in prison. Even South Africa had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the horrors of apartheid. Does Obama think the American public can’t handle the truth?

Now, with the death of bin Laden, we can mark the death of 9/11-related accountability, too.

The point was underscored on Aug. 31, when the Bipartisan Policy Center, led by former 9/11 Commissioner Gov. Tim Kean, issued a report card saying the nation is “still highly vulnerable to aviation security threats.”

“We really have not gotten it right yet,” Kean said, adding that Congress still hasn’t allocated new broadcast frequencies for common use by all first responders—a critical failure during 9/11. “That should have been done yesterday, and everyday it’s not done, the American people are less safe.”

In the meantime, Karl Rove has been out-tricked by Dick Armey and his FreedomWorks Foundation, which turned the old Christian Coalition into the religious and further far right extremist Tea Party, which holds Republicans in their grasp. On Sept. 1, for the first time in U.S. history, House Speaker John Boehner refused the request by the president of the United States to address Congress. However, some now question why the White House chose the date of the Republican presidential debate to deliver Obama’s big jobs speech.

On my last trip to New York City, I didn’t go to see the site of the future 9/11 memorial. I couldn’t stomach how, after 10 years, the symbol of America’s financial strength, power and brash ingenuity is a big hole in the ground.


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