9/11 Widows Deena Burnett-Bailey, Kristen Breitweiser: No One Can Speak For All Victims
In the midst of the 2004 presidential election, two women widowed by al Qaeda found themselves on opposing sides of a rancorous debate over national security as each supported the candidate they believed would best prevent another 9/11.
Deena Burnett-Bailey, whose husband Tom Burnett died after fighting back against the hijackers on United Airlines Flight 93, took to the stage of the Republican National Convention for a moment in front of the television cameras.
Kristen Breitweiser, who lost her husband Ronald in the World Trade Center's second tower, barnstormed campaign stops to help John Kerry win over "security moms."
Seven years later, both women have largely stepped back from politics to raise their children. Both now look back on the positions they took during the course of that tumultuous election with no regret, but a certain amount of worldly hindsight.
Despite the roles they were thrust into by tragedy, Burnett-Bailey and Breitweiser say they never thought they could serve as voices for the victims of Sept. 11 -- and that no one can.
Simply reading the list of the nearly 3,000 people who died that day can chill the heart. The number of friends and family members who lost some treasured part of their life is unimaginable. Between just Breitweiser and Burnett-Bailey, who has since remarried, four children lost a father on 9/11.
There are a dizzying array of organizations that claim some link to September 11 victims. Some profess political neutrality: Families of September 11, Voices of September 11th, Tuesday's Children. Others have thrust themselves into the charged debates over torture or the so-called Ground Zero mosque: 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America has squared off against 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, for example.
None, according to several victims' family members interviewed for by The Huffington Post, can claim to speak for all those who lost someone that day. Neither Breitweiser nor Burnett-Bailey are members of any.
"With the thousands of us, you have thousands of opinions and values, and even many different cultures, so no there is no one voice," Burnett-Bailey said. "And collectively, there is no one person who has been put in charge of being that voice -- nor will there ever be."
Nevertheless, Burnett-Bailey knew how her appearance at the Republican National Convention would be received. She said she "voted for George W. Bush, and had the intention of promoting other people to vote for him by being there."
But that, she added, "was not my passion in going. My passion was in going to tell Tom's story."
And the speech she prepared for the RNC reflects that aim: she spoke not of parties or candidates, but of the lesson the heroic final moments of her husband's life held for other Americans:
Whether it is serving in the military, doing volunteer work or simply helping your neighbor, it is our responsibility as citizens of the greatest nation in the world to "do something."
The heroes of 911 weren't created that day.
Their actions were the result of virtues practiced over a lifetime.
The most fitting memorial we could build would not consist of marble, glass or fountains.
It would be a living memorial -- carved in our hearts and actions by faith, courage and integrity.
When Breitweiser spoke, she was often more confrontational. In 2004, in the midst of pushing for President Bush to speak before the 9/11 Commission -- which her advocacy played a key role in creating -- Breitweiser told a reporter, "Three thousand innocent people were murdered on his watch. The least he can do is cooperate with the commission charged with investigating those murders."
Rush Limbaugh and the Wall Street Journal's editorial board lambasted her. In 2006, Ann Coulter, referring to her work on the 9/11 Commission, said she and the other "Jersey Girls" were acting "as if the terrorist attacks happened only to them... I've never seen people enjoying their husbands' deaths so much."
In one part of her response on The Huffington Post to Coulter's much-disparaged charge, Breitweiser wrote, "Sadly, in many cases, such public pressure (and its possible effect on Election Day) is needed to inspire elected officials to do the right thing."
That was why Breitweiser went to work for the Kerry in 2004, believing the candidate would do a much better job than Bush in investigating the mistakes that led to the Sept. 11 attacks. "We always made it very clear that we did not speak for the 9/11 families," she said. In fact, she remembers, if anyone left that impression, "you just got clobbered for it."
Washington, Breitweiser believes, is a "dog and pony show" where politicians and TV producers use people "for a photo op." She loathed the way producers set her up against other widows with different political viewpoints for ratings.
"I was told flat out that it's good television, and I think that's a shame," Breitweiser said. "I think one of the lessons we should have learned out of 9/11 is the danger that can creep out of polarized views."
But for a time, she was willing to be used.
"I don't think it should work that way, but unfortunately the only way we got things in Washington was by embarrassing people or stacking them into a corner so they had to," Breitweiser said.
Now that Barack Obama has disappointed her in fulfilling the 9/11 Commission's unfinished work, however, she has given up on Democrats.
"We've all sort of moved on into the more private part of our lives," Breitweiser said of her work with the three other suburban New Jersey widows who pressed for the committee. "You get to a certain point where you realize it's just an exercise in futility trying to get anything done in Washington."
Burnett-Bailey, who lives in Little Rock, Ark., said the 9/11 families will continue to recede from national prominence. That is not something she has any regrets about. Other issues and other people, she said, will take the spotlight in the next election: "In 2004 that was 9/11 families, in 2012 it will not be."
Burnett-Bailey and her children were invited to Sunday's official September 11 service, which both Presidents Bush and Obama will attend. Instead, they are traveling to Pepperdine University for the dedication of a memorial garden named after her husband, a graduate.