04 August 2009

9/11 family members united on some issues, divided on others

After Sept. 11, 2001, you would have been hard-pressed to find someone who had lost a family member that day, of any political persuasion, who did not want to find out how and why the attacks took place and why their loved ones died. In the same way, there was and is widespread support among this diverse community, bound by the pain and loss of that day, for remembering the victims.

But once other questions began to arise, such as how to prevent terrorist attacks, and what to do with those accused of terrorism, the views of the 9/11 family members diverged -- widely. Beverly Eckert had fought for a number of causes after she lost her beloved husband, Sean. Perhaps she was best known for her role as a member of the Family Steering Committee, which was instrumental in establishing the 9/11 Commission and implementing some of the commission's most important recommendations. But Beverly was also strong supporter of other causes, including the creation of the National 9/11 Memorial, skyscraper safety, and airline security. These causes had wide support among the 9/11 community.

Beverly also supported closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and putting the terrorism detainees held there on trial in the US. Other 9/11 family members disagreed, and an article in today's Washington Post highlights the diversity of these views. One of the family members put it well, in this nutshell:

"There is a diverse set of opinions about closing Guantanamo, about having the military tribunals versus having federal trials in the United States, about the death penalty versus life if convicted," said Adele Welty, whose son, Timothy, was a New York firefighter killed on Sept. 11. "If you would take any group in the population who were not family members, you would have an equally diverse set of opinions."

Someone Beverly had met through the group September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, Valerie Lucznikowska, said President Obama's efforts to bring the terrorism suspects to justice in the US was a good idea. On the other hand, Kristen Breitweiser, another member of the Family Steering Committee, had become disillusioned with the president's approach, according to the article. She said Obama's failure to include family members in the deliberations on Guantanamo "translates to me like they really don't care."

The 9/11 family members achieved the peak of their political influence when their unity coincided with support from powerful allies in Washington, among the media, and from average Americans from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon. But as the issues at hand divide rather than unite; as the memory of 9/11 begins to fade from public consciousness; and as powerful constituencies and players are facing off against each other rather than standing should-to-shoulder, it is difficult to see how the 9/11 family members will ever be as effective as they once were.

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