Widows Pique


The Wall Street Journal's Dorothy Rabinowitz has made her name (and snagged a Pulitzer) by writing tough, contrarian pieces for arguably the most influential editorial page in the country. Today, she's got a characteristically sharp piece on "the 9/11 Widows," the group of highly public "Jersey girls" who were the subject of Gail Sheehy's recent book and any number of television appearances. (Go here for a flattering and fun NY Observer profile of Rabinowitz.)

Give Rabinowitz credit for busting on some of the widows' claims:

The best known and most quoted pronouncement of all had come in the form of a question put by the leader of the Jersey Girls. "We simply wanted to know," [Kristin] Breitweiser said, by way of explaining the group's position, "why our husbands were killed. Why they went to work one day and didn't come back."

The answer, seared into the nation's heart, is that, like some 3,000 others who perished that day, those husbands didn't come home because a cadre of Islamist fanatics wanted to kill as many of the hated American infidels in their tall towers and places of government as they could, and they did so. Clearly, this must be a truth also known to those widows who asked the question—though in no way one would notice.

Who, listening to them, would not be struck by the fact that all their fury and accusation is aimed not at the killers who snuffed out their husbands' and so many other lives, but at the American president, his administration, and an ever wider assortment of targets including the Air Force, the Port Authority, the City of New York? In the public pronouncements of the Jersey Girls we find, indeed, hardly a jot of accusatory rage at the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. We have, on the other hand, more than a few declarations like that of Ms. Breitweiser, announcing that "President Bush and his workers . . . were the individuals that failed my husband and the 3,000 people that day."…

Out of their loss and tragedy the widows had forged new lives as investigators of 9/11, analysts of what might have been had every agency of government done as it should. No one would begrudge them this solace.

Nor can anyone miss, by now, the darker side of this spectacle of the widows, awash in their sense of victims' entitlement, as they press ahead with ever more strident claims about the way the government failed them…..

Yesterday's session of the 9/11 Commission brought an appearance by Attorney General John Ashcroft—a reminder, among other things, of various intriguing questions posed by some of [widow Kristin] Breitweiser's analyses (delivered in her testimony before the 2002 congressional committee) of the ways the Sept. 11 attack might have been foiled. If the Federal Aviation Administration had properly alerted passengers to the dangers they faced, she asked, how many victims might have thought twice before boarding an aircraft? And "how many victims would have taken notice of these Middle Eastern men while they were boarding their plane? Could these men have been stopped?"

A good question. One can only imagine how a broadcast of the warning, "Watch out for Middle Eastern men in line near you, as you board your flight," would have gone down in those quarters of the culture daily worried to death about the alleged threat to civil rights posed by profiling and similar steps designed to weed out terrorists. Consider, a veteran political aide mordantly asks, what the response would have been if John Ashcroft had issued a statement calling for such a precaution, prior to Sept. 11.

And yet I find Rabinowitz's column ultimately extremely unsatisfying, precisely because it fails to grapple with the strangest dynamic at work in the government's response to 9/11. There was clearly a systemic breakdown in terms of keeping American lives safe, and yet nobody in any sort of leadership role–nobody who was setting policy, enforcing policy, or overseeing policy–has gotten canned or really been brought to task for being wrong. Everyone in the Bush and Clinton administrations has been so busy covering their asses that you'd never know that something could have gone wrong, let alone did.

None of this is to shift responsibility for 9/11 away from the terrorists who did the killing. But the sense that there was nothing that could have been done is being trotted out with disturbing frequency. The Clinton crowd (i.e., administration officials and partisans) says they (finally!) had a plan in place but didn't get a chance to enact it. The Bush crowd says they never got a plan and/or were grappling with years of neglect. These same people who failed to protect us now tell us they've got it figured out, more or less.

Given the evasion of responsibility at the uppermost levels, I can forgive the carping of the 9/11 widows.