This is a long post, with a very personal story, and I warn you that the September 11th portion has some slightly graphic content. But it’s my family’s story, our account of the day when we lost many friends, and nearly my brother. Following it are my attempts to make sense of what America has been doing to itself, and finally finding some sense and a perfect explanation of why “being nice” and apologizing regularly will never change the minds of terrorists.
What I Learned on September 11th
I will never forget driving my car and circling around the exit ramp off Exit 36 of Interstate 287 in NJ that afternoon, on September 11th. I think it was about 4:00 pm in the afternoon, and we had finally heard from my brother. The last time we’d heard his voice, it had been five or six hours ago. He’d been speaking frantically from his cell phone. He was running. It was difficult to understand him. Something about “zombies”, then “I saw it right from my window”, something about “finding somebody with a boat…no way out”, and then, “water balloons”.
My family gathered together at my mom’s house that day. One by one, we each just went there – I don’t remember planning it that way. We just went there. We kept the news on television, and we stayed off the telephone as much as possible. Of course, people kept calling though. Everyone was painfully aware that my brother worked at a trading desk for a Wall Street firm. We kept watching the news, not sure whether or not we were hoping to see him by way of the news…that could go either way. Nonetheless, we sat, horrified at what was unfolding on television. Only two hours before, I’d just settled into my office at work, getting ready for a conference call, when the person I was scheduled to call had called me first. “Hey, doesn’t your brother work in the city as a stock broker or something?”, he asked on the other end. “Yeah, why? You called me early for my brother?”. There was a long pause, and no chuckle. “You’d better call home. Go check the wire, they’re flying planes into buildings – the twin towers. Just go check the wire, and go home. Call me later and let me know if everything’s OK.” Puzzled, I flung open my office door and someone happened to be standing there right at that moment, with an unknown man, toward the front of the building. She asked if I knew what was going on, referring to the man’s visit, and I shook my head. I went to check the fax machines (the wire). At the time, I was working for a major research company, and we had a news service that still received automatic fax alerts from some outlets.
I don’t remember seeing any faxes there, but at that moment my cell phone rang. It was my mom. She was crying; no, she was hysterical. She’d just heard from my brother and “he was in the middle of all of it when his phone went dead.” I started crying; she was hard to hear with the cell service breaking up, so I hung up and called her from a speakerphone that was in the building’s lobby. We conferenced in my sister. As people from my office started hearing what was going on, they gathered around the speakerphone to listen in while my sister played her television for us all. My sister was hysterical. I can remember looking around and seeing about 15 or so faces looking at each other, stunned and horrified. We all checked on each other’s loved ones, tracked down co-workers who were traveling, and sort of scurried about. I just remember being almost frozen with fear. And then the strange man asked me, “Maa’m, where can I find the person responsible for the computer networks for these facilities?” He showed me a badge, but I hadn’t even processed what was going on – I called the building manager, who came by in less than 2 minutes, and the two seemed to be expecting each other. Both men looked around, then at me and said, “You kids should all go home. Be with your families. Everything will be OK.”
My co-worker and close friend drove me directly to my mother’s house. He came in to chat with my mom and try to help console her a little. 15 minutes later, he left to pick up his wife and be with his own family; soon after, they went down to a nearby medical facility to donate blood. So there I sat, staring at the news on television, trying to piece together the last couple of hours.
Earlier that morning, my brother had gone to work like any other day. He took the PATH from his home in Hoboken into lower Manhattan. He walked up the stairs through the terminal at the World Trade Center, and crossed the corner to enter his building. He made his way up several floors to his office. Only minutes later, as he was looking out the window, the first plane flew right over his building as he watched it crash into the North Tower (WTC 1). After the second plane crashed, he rushed to exit his building and ran out into the streets. Just before 10:00 am, he was able to get through briefly to my mother from his cell phone. She could only process bits and pieces of what he was telling her. Then the phone went dead. About another 30 minutes later, he got through again, but only for a minute. We really didn’t know where he was or whether or not he was safe. We had just witnessed the towers collapsing, and we sat still, frozen with fear. I could not even fathom what my brother was going through at the moment. We watched in terror as we saw people in Manhattan running from the debris, then running across the Brooklyn and Verrazano bridges on foot. I will never forget the sounds of what seemed like hundreds of firemen’s beacons sounding their alarms all at once, en masse. I think it was then that my mother insisted she was going to drive into the city to try and find him and get him out of there. She’d soon find out that no roadways would allow her access into or out of the city. She even insisted on trying to make her way to Hoboken or Jersey City, so that she’d at least be on the other side of the river.
Finally, we got a call from him in the late afternoon. He’d somehow ended up in Newark, and for reasons I don’t think we’ve ever clarified, he’d gotten some strangers to agree to drop him off on Interstate 287 at the exit for my mother’s town. He was on his way, and I agreed to go pick him up alongside the highway, just near the exit ramp. So here I was at 4:00 pm, driving my car up and down the street, in the vicinity of the highway exit ramp. I finally pulled over and parked alongside the road, planning to get out of the car and walk up to the exit ramp. It was then that I saw him, walking just off the ramp, and I backed my car up to him and opened the door. I don’t know that I even said much, but I know I was incredibly relieved to see him there in the flesh right next to me. A wave of exhaustion came over me, and suddenly, for the first time all day, I was able to hear clearly and to focus on the words that he spoke.
Still shaking from the events of the day, the first things he says to me are, “It flew right over us. I watched it. I just watched it crash right into it. I…I…I couldn’t believe it. They just stood there. Like it was a movie. Looking up in the air. Like Zombies. I told them to run but they wouldn’t. They just stood there, in the way. Like Zombies. I’m sure they’re all dead now. Zombies. Why?” He continued on, telling me he knew there must have been be no way out, because the trains were gone…meaning, buried. He said he’d talked to some locals about getting on a boat somehow to get out of the city and away from the area, until people finally found some available ferry spots and he was able to make it on board. But it was what he said next that will forever remain in my mind, my ears, my imagination. He was frantically stuttering, “Oh my God, they were jumping. They were jumping everywhere. I looked up, I didn’t know what it was. Ohhh, they were jumping. I couldn’t get around it. There was just stuff everywhere, all over the ground. Just pieces…pieces of…you know…body parts…oh my God. I didn’t know what was happening…it was…I thought…Oh my God…I thought…I thought someone was dropping…I thought it was water balloons”.
To this day, my brother barely speaks of that day. Would you believe, he even returned to work – to the stock market, no less – only a week later, eventually even returning to the same building, spending every day overlooking the horror that was Ground Zero. But he has nightmares about watching people fall from heights. He has bad dreams about skyscraper window-washers falling from their scaffolding. He has fears that our country will forget about September 11th, because it will become taboo to mention it. He has fears that eventually, our government will stop worrying altogether about a future September 11th. More importantly, I think my other family members, myself included, probably fear the latter more than he does. I refuse to live through another September 11th, and the US Constitution ensures me that right.
I do not support torture – there, that’s out of the way. But I DO support our nation’s common defense. Provision 5 of the Preamble to the US Constitution grants The People the RIGHT to be protected against all enemies, both internally and externally, who might seek to destroy the United States. The founders defined this as peace through strength, indicating that America must always stand at the ready for attack, that a display of strength of available force is necessary to deter even the thought of attack from most. Ben Franklin said of our defense during the Constitutional Convention:
“The way to secure peace is to be prepared for war. They that are on their guard, and appear ready to receive their adversaries, are in much less danger of being attacked than the supine, secure, and negligent.”
We must stop behaving as though there is nothing to fear. There is. There always has been, and there always will be, as long as we are the United States of America.
And you know what else? My brother returned to work at the stock market only a week later. It was a sign of solidarity for the country at that time. We NEEDED the stock markets to return to work. My brother was scared to death to go back, but he did. He had to – for him, and for the country. How is it that only 8 years later, we allow our own Congress members and the White House administration to vilify Wall Street workers? How is it that we allow labor unions and ACORN to protest on Wall Street, calling for “Death to Capitalism”? How can we allow progressives to openly campaign for capitalism t be replaced with socialism? Have you any idea what people like my brother and our family have endured these last eight years? What has happened to us?
Today, my brother is unemployed. For the first time in eight years, he won’t need to be viewing the memorial services from his office window. And what do all the labor unions and progressives write to me when they read about my brother’s story? “Too bad he made it out, he’s worse than the terrorists. Capitalist scum. Tell him to enjoy his Funemployment.”
Classy. This is what we’ve come to. My relatives immigrated here from Lebanon and Syria, the other side from Iran and Poland, all to enjoy the American dream and the freedom for which we stand. And now, somehow it’s a crime to aspire to be successful, and if you were working on Wall Street on 9/11, you’re somehow worse than the terrorists.
Rest in peace my friends, I miss you. And for my brother I wish strength and peace, you will find it. Those who wish ill will on what we stand for will never find either.
Why Fear IS Necessary
I always struggle with my feelings whenever the issues of the day turn to terrorism and national security. Not because I am torn on how the US should stand on defense against terrorism, I am not. But because I am torn – torn apart – by the ugliness and thoughtlessness of so many in our own country. I am torn apart by the knee-jerk reaction from so many when even the mention of September 11th immediately translates in their minds to fear-mongering. Worse, they’ve actually been *trained* to react this way – to use it as a political defense against any who would oppose President Obama’s policy on national security, which in his own words is “one of communication and negotiation”…to “encourage others to work with America”. To put it bluntly, it’s as if those of us who were directly affected by that day have “used up our minutes”, so to speak.
And then the president said this yesterday:
“If we continue to make decisions within a climate of fear, we will make more mistakes. And if we refuse to deal with these issues today, then I guarantee you that they will be an albatross around our efforts to combat terrorism in the future.”
Do you know what? This country does NOT HAVE ENOUGH FEAR. It’s like America has forgotten about September 11th, like it’s a crime to remind anyone of that day. It’s as though progressives think that somehow the terrorists will change their views of America if we change our behavior and start being nice, talking out our issues instead of actively defending ourselves. Terrorists hate Americans because of our Constitution, our Liberty, our beliefs in natural law and unalienable rights, and what our way of life stands for. Nothing we say or do is going to change their views, not unless we change to a Socialized, Open Society form of government, where there is no Capitalism and there is no “American ally” to be involved in the affairs of countries like Israel. And while some might think that’s precisely the direction in which we should take America, I for one will NEVER support that.
Fear can be a good thing. Henry H. Tweedy once said “Fear is the father of courage and the mother of safety.” Fear can drive people to discover courage they never knew they had, and it can teach them lessons that will never be forgotten. Fear should be respected, not criticized. Let me tell you a little bit about fear. My family learned valuable lessons about fear on September 11th, 2001, and this country should never, ever dismiss or diminish the impact that such a lesson can have on this great nation.
Where are the sensible voices?
In my frustration to understand the decisions that this administration has been making regarding national security, and even more so to understand the criticism and harsh statements regarding “making decisions based on fear”, I went seeking some voice of reason that could help me to resolve these feelings of conflict, discontent, and frankly, depression I’m feeling. I was encouraged by what I stumbled upon next.
It was a letter to Eric Holder, US Attorney General, in response to an invitation to participate in a May 4th roundtable meeting convened by the President’s Task Force on Detention Policy with current and former prosecutors involved in international terrorism cases. The letter was written by Andrew C. McCarthy, and it literally floored me (in a good way).
I’ll get to the letter in just a moment (and you MUST read it), but let me first explain who Andrew McCarthy is.
Andrew C. McCarthy was the chief assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, before he retired from his position in 2003. Mr. McCarthy was also the Recipient of the Middle East Forum’s Fifth Albert J. Wood Public Affairs Award in recognition of “courage and success in prosecuting the largest terrorism trial in the nation’s history.” That trial, of course, was United States v. Omar Ahmed Ali Abdel Rahman, the prosecution of the blind Sheikh in New York. In addition to being the leader of Egyptian terrorist organization Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, which killed 62 people in the November 1997 Luxor massacre, and his relationship with Osama bin Laden and role in Al Qaeda, Americans know Omar Abdel Rahman best for his 1995 conviction of conspiring to bomb the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993, which killed 6 and injured over 1,000 at the hands of Ramzi Yousef, nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
In a 1997 article he wrote for the Middle East Quarterly, titled Prosecuting the New York Sheikh, Mr. McCarthy so eloquently stated his view on how the U.S. must respond to international terrorism. It struck me, because it is the same way that I feel, yet I am so often unable to express my view in the face of what is quite regularly nearly hostile opposition. He stated this:
“Appeasement does not work. Fundamentalist Muslims hate the United States and deem themselves at war with it. Worse, theirs is a permanent hostility, one that cannot be altered by clever diplomacy or rhetorical flourishes. They despise Americans for who they are and what they believe. They reject basic American principles — that the authority to rule comes from the people, who freely may choose their ideals and beliefs. This being the case, the terrorists’ enmity cannot be reversed without changing the basic character of what the United States is, without destroying all that is worth preserving.
Words may not deter but actions do. Terrorists need to feel American determination to pursue, punish, and contain them, so that their efforts never bear fruit and their brutality brings with it a cost they cannot pay. I believe their resolve will bend in the face of strength.
Americans need to be consistent in the international arena. A law-enforcement agency that would allow a criminal to improve his plea offer through the threat of extortion would sow chaos and likely forfeit its future ability to enforce the law. No less, a state that rewards rogue regimes with a place at the negotiating table guarantees that the law of the jungle, not the law of civilized society, will prevail. The government that negotiates with terrorist states encourages every terrorist that his methods work.
International peace, like domestic tranquility, is a product of strength and the common knowledge that force will be met with superior force. This real peace is much to be preferred to “peace processes” that indulge the fantasy of slowly reasoning with terrorists while the toll of civilian death grows ever larger.
No one is free to send out a call to arms against the United States without consequence. When the caller demonstrates the wherewithal to make good on his threats, a great country need not wait to be ambushed before acting. The terrorist knows only two responses: strength and constancy; or weakness and appeasement. Americans must make the correct choice.”
And now, the Letter:
A Letter from Andrew C. McCarthy to The ‘Honorable’ Eric H. Holder, Jr.
The following is a letter that Andrew McCarthy wrote to Eric Holder, US Attorney General, in response to an invitation for Mr. McCarthy to participate in a May 4th roundtable meeting convened by the President’s Task Force on Detention Policy with current and former prosecutors involved in international terrorism cases.
May 1, 2009
Andrew C. McCarthy
May 1, 2009
By email (to the Counterterrorism Division) and by regular mail:
The Honorable Eric H. Holder, Jr.
Attorney General of the United States
United States Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20530-0001
Dear Attorney General Holder:
This letter is respectfully submitted to inform you that I must decline the invitation to participate in the May 4 roundtable meeting the President’s Task Force on Detention Policy is convening with current and former prosecutors involved in international terrorism cases. An invitation was extended to me by trial lawyers from the Counterterrorism Section, who are members of the Task Force, which you are leading.
The invitation email (of April 14) indicates that the meeting is part of an ongoing effort to identify lawful policies on the detention and disposition of alien enemy combatants—or what the Department now calls “individuals captured or apprehended in connection with armed conflicts and counterterrorism operations.” I admire the lawyers of the Counterterrorism Division, and I do not question their good faith. Nevertheless, it is quite clear—most recently, from your provocative remarks on Wednesday in Germany—that the Obama administration has already settled on a policy of releasing trained jihadists (including releasing some of them into the United States). Whatever the good intentions of the organizers, the meeting will obviously be used by the administration to claim that its policy was arrived at in consultation with current and former government officials experienced in terrorism cases and national security issues. I deeply disagree with this policy, which I believe is a violation of federal law and a betrayal of the president’s first obligation to protect the American people. Under the circumstances, I think the better course is to register my dissent, rather than be used as a prop.
Moreover, in light of public statements by both you and the President, it is dismayingly clear that, under your leadership, the Justice Department takes the position that a lawyer who in good faith offers legal advice to government policy makers—like the government lawyers who offered good faith advice on interrogation policy—may be subject to investigation and prosecution for the content of that advice, in addition to empty but professionally damaging accusations of ethical misconduct. Given that stance, any prudent lawyer would have to hesitate before offering advice to the government.
Beyond that, as elucidated in my writing (including my proposal for a new national security court, which I understand the Task Force has perused), I believe alien enemy combatants should be detained at Guantanamo Bay (or a facility like it) until the conclusion of hostilities. This national defense measure is deeply rooted in the venerable laws of war and was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in the 2004 Hamdi case. Yet, as recently as Wednesday, you asserted that, in your considered judgment, such notions violate America’s “commitment to the rule of law.” Indeed, you elaborated, “Nothing symbolizes our [adminstration’s] new course more than our decision to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay…. President Obama believes, and I strongly agree, that Guantanamo has come to represent a time and an approach that we want to put behind us: a disregard for our centuries-long respect for the rule of law[.]” (Emphasis added.)
Given your policy of conducting ruinous criminal and ethics investigations of lawyers over the advice they offer the government, and your specific position that the wartime detention I would endorse is tantamount to a violation of law, it makes little sense for me to attend the Task Force meeting. After all, my choice would be to remain silent or risk jeopardizing myself.
For what it may be worth, I will say this much. For eight years, we have had a robust debate in the United States about how to handle alien terrorists captured during a defensive war authorized by Congress after nearly 3000 of our fellow Americans were annihilated. Essentially, there have been two camps. One calls for prosecution in the civilian criminal justice system, the strategy used throughout the 1990s. The other calls for a military justice approach of combatant detention and war-crimes prosecutions by military commission. Because each theory has its downsides, many commentators, myself included, have proposed a third way: a hybrid system, designed for the realities of modern international terrorism—a new system that would address the needs to protect our classified defense secrets and to assure Americans, as well as our allies, that we are detaining the right people.
There are differences in these various proposals. But their proponents, and adherents to both the military and civilian justice approaches, have all agreed on at least one thing: Foreign terrorists trained to execute mass-murder attacks cannot simply be released while the war ensues and Americans are still being targeted. We have already released too many jihadists who, as night follows day, have resumed plotting to kill Americans. Indeed, according to recent reports, a released Guantanamo detainee is now leading Taliban combat operations in Afghanistan, where President Obama has just sent additional American forces.
The Obama campaign smeared Guantanamo Bay as a human rights blight. Consistent with that hyperbolic rhetoric, the President began his administration by promising to close the detention camp within a year. The President did this even though he and you (a) agree Gitmo is a top-flight prison facility, (b) acknowledge that our nation is still at war, and (c) concede that many Gitmo detainees are extremely dangerous terrorists who cannot be tried under civilian court rules. Patently, the commitment to close Guantanamo Bay within a year was made without a plan for what to do with these detainees who cannot be tried. Consequently, the Detention Policy Task Force is not an effort to arrive at the best policy. It is an effort to justify a bad policy that has already been adopted: to wit, the Obama administration policy to release trained terrorists outright if that’s what it takes to close Gitmo by January.
Obviously, I am powerless to stop the administration from releasing top al Qaeda operatives who planned mass-murder attacks against American cities—like Binyam Mohammed (the accomplice of “Dirty Bomber” Jose Padilla) whom the administration recently transferred to Britain, where he is now at liberty and living on public assistance. I am similarly powerless to stop the administration from admitting into the United States such alien jihadists as the 17 remaining Uighur detainees. According to National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair, the Uighurs will apparently live freely, on American taxpayer assistance, despite the facts that they are affiliated with a terrorist organization and have received terrorist paramilitary training. Under federal immigration law (the 2005 REAL ID Act), those facts render them excludable from the United States. The Uighurs’ impending release is thus a remarkable development given the Obama administration’s propensity to deride its predecessor’s purported insensitivity to the rule of law.
I am, in addition, powerless to stop the President, as he takes these reckless steps, from touting his Detention Policy Task Force as a demonstration of his national security seriousness. But I can decline to participate in the charade.
Finally, let me repeat that I respect and admire the dedication of Justice Department lawyers, whom I have tirelessly defended since I retired in 2003 as a chief assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York. It was a unique honor to serve for nearly twenty years as a federal prosecutor, under administrations of both parties. It was as proud a day as I have ever had when the trial team I led was awarded the Attorney General’s Exceptional Service Award in 1996, after we secured the convictions of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and his underlings for waging a terrorist war against the United States. I particularly appreciated receiving the award from Attorney General Reno—as I recounted in Willful Blindness, my book about the case, without her steadfastness against opposition from short-sighted government officials who wanted to release him, the “blind sheikh” would never have been indicted, much less convicted and so deservedly sentenced to life-imprisonment. In any event, I’ve always believed defending our nation is a duty of citizenship, not ideology. Thus, my conservative political views aside, I’ve made myself available to liberal and conservative groups, to Democrats and Republicans, who’ve thought tapping my experience would be beneficial. It pains me to decline your invitation, but the attendant circumstances leave no other option.
Very truly yours,
Andrew C. McCarthy
cc: Sylvia T. Kaser and John DePue
National Security Division, Counterterrorism Section