I was sitting at a desk in a dark room at the Cambridge Marriott outside Boston, where I’d been attending a networking breakfast before work. After I gave up the fruitless effort to call my mom, and after I called my sister, listening to her scream when I told her Mom was gone, it was my father who first told me the name of the man who killed her. I did not recognize it. It sounded foreign, unintelligible to me; I could not have even begun to spell it. But the name — and the evil and mystique it would eventually embody — would come to transform and animate my life in ways I could never have imagined.
There is no guidebook that prepares you to be a survivor of terrorism. No one tells you what you are supposed to do on Sept. 12, how you should respond. I was 26 years old, working as a high-tech marketing professional, with no experience dealing with government officials, journalists or grieving victims. Little I had done could have prepared me for a life of activism. I could only rely on what I knew. Mom was a go-getter, someone who saw a world full of solutions waiting to be found. She taught my sister and me to find them.
Within weeks of Mom’s murder, we had co-founded Families of September 11 alongside other families affected by the attacks, and we began an advocacy campaign that continues to this day. Our goal was simple: to meet the needs of the victims’ families and to make sure that what had happened to our loved ones would never happen again.
We did not know that our effort would entail a 14-month fight with the George W. Bush White House and some members of Congress to create an independent investigation into the attacks, as well as an ongoing battle to compel constant scrutiny of aviation security. I knew that bin Laden was still out there and still a risk to my family and others, and by engaging with world leaders and inserting myself into America’s national security debates, I was doing all I knew how to do to counter him.
It was not always simple, and at times, we needed to employ our own covert operations. At one critical moment during the fight to create the 9/11 Commission, a key member of Congress who did not want to answer our questions actually hid in his office. We explained to him that we could hear him breathing behind the closed door, and he was forced to open it and invite us in. Thankfully, he eventually supported our call for an independent investigation, and I learned that, to make the country safer, sometimes you have to be aggressive.
But these efforts took their toll on me. There were countless long nights flying home from Washington to Boston, when all I was left to was thinking about what had happened to Mom. Every time I flew over New York, as the flight path takes you, I’d look down at Lower Manhattan and say a little prayer for her, trying to feel my mother’s presence at the place where her body was blown apart. But mostly I just felt her absence.
As the so-called war on terror progressed, I was saddened and frustrated by the attention heaped on the bad guys. The media, politicians and academics analyzed terrorists’ motivations and strategies and next steps, as if the kind of people who commit mass murder and slaughter innocent civilians in suicide attacks were rational.
All the while, those who suffer at the hands of terrorists were often left by the wayside. We were at the mercy of bin Laden and his collaborators — traumatized when they released videos or statements, unsure when their next attack would happen, and only called upon for our opinions in response to theirs. I started to dread any “unknown caller” popping up on my caller ID; inevitably it was a journalist seeking my reaction to something this madman had said, sometimes interrupting what had been a peaceful day.
In part, that frustration led me to co-found the Global Survivors Network, a group of victims of terrorist attacks from around the world. In meetings over the past two years, we’ve shared our aggravations, our hopes and our desire to prevent future attacks. We decided that we should merit the same attention as bin Laden and other terrorists, and that we should use the same tools they use. For every statement they make, we should make a counter-statement. For every video they release, we should release our own. I once even proposed, jokingly, that we should hide one of our members (Ashraf Al Khaled, an inspirational Jordanian who lost 27 friends and family members in 2005 when his wedding was bombed by attackers inspired by bin Laden) in a cave and bring him out every few months. After all, that approach seemed to have worked well for the terrorists!
In a perverse irony, I was taking my lead from bin Laden, mirroring his tactics and movements to achieve opposite goals. My idea to create a documentary film can be directly attributed to bin Laden’s success with his own videos and the desire it inspired in me to counter them. It paid off: “Killing in the Name” was nominated for an Academy Award this year, and Global Survivors Network videos have been accepted into the Cannes Film Festival.
All the while, I have never really stopped to study the man. I don’t think I can. In my mind, Osama bin Laden is a murderer, plain and simple, and I am simply not interested in learning any more or defining him in any other way.
His death has elicited a range of emotions for me: numbness, relief and mostly sadness that I will still wake up each day without being able to hug Mom. In that sense, bin Laden’s demise does not change my life. My mother is still gone. I will never complete that phone call I tried so hard to make on that gorgeous September day. And I remain inspired to thwart a senseless but potent ideology that continues to draw sustenance from his mystique — one that, sadly, will far outlive bin Laden himself.
Carie Lemack is a co-founder of the Global Survivors Network and the executive producer of “Killing in the Name.”
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