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Last Updated: Sunday, 24 October, 2004, 01:44 GMT 02:44 UK
The polarisation of the 9/11 families

by Jane Corbin
BBC Panorama reporter

An American flag hangs over the door of the neat clapboard house on Long Island.

A notice proclaims "best-kept neighbourhood lawn award". Jimmy Boyle, a former Fireman's Union leader, lives here surrounded by photos of his son Michael, his medals, his helmet.

"Every morning and night I still think of him - I miss him terribly," says Jimmy.

Michael died on 9/11, one of 346 firemen who lost their lives at Ground Zero. Jimmy has been a life-long Democrat; he reels off the names of nine presidential candidates he's voted for since 1960 from John F Kennedy through Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

9/11 families
Lorie van Auken
I had trusted my government before. I thought they were doing their job and our families were safe
Lorie van Auken

But Jimmy's life - and his political allegiances changed on 9/11. Now he has made a powerful political commercial in which he supports his "war" president as "a guy who is going to lead us to victory in this war."

Three years ago, 9/11 became the defining moment for the new presidency as George Bush stood on the ruins of the World Trade Center, megaphone in hand with his arm around a fireman, and swore to avenge those who died.

He is seeking re-election on the strength of his record in "the war against terror". As Panorama discovered the families of those killed on 9/11 have measured the progress of that war more closely than any other group of Americans.

They are well informed, their bookshelves stacked high with the dozens of political memoirs and official reports the terror attacks have generated.

They have attended countless memorials and rallies while coping with grief and the most public of losses.

Now the 9/11 families are being used as cheerleaders by both sides as the polls show that the issues of terrorism and the war in Iraq may well decide the outcome of the US election.

Along the New Jersey turnpike lie a string of commuter towns which bore the brunt of 9/11. Most of the 658 families who lost husbands and fathers who worked for the brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald live here.

'Appalled'

Two mothers from East Brunswick first met through a support group little knowing their friendship would give a new meaning to their lives in the wake of the tragedy.

Lorie van Auken and Mindy Kleinberg grew increasingly angry as six months passed and still there was no independent inquiry into the failure of US government agencies to prevent the terror attacks.

"I had trusted my government before. I thought they were doing their job and our families were safe and I wasn't now going to believe they were fixing things," Mindy told me.

Anger sparked political activism and together with two other widows, Mindy and Lorie left their young children with relatives and started a regular eight hour commute to Washington.

The "Jersey moms" banged on doors in the male-dominated bastion of the Capitol. The Bush administration had to give in and an independent 9/11 Commission was established. The women would spend the next two years harrying the White House to release documents and allow officials to testify.

Lorie van Auken's anger was fuelled when she realised - ahead of most of the public, that President Bush had failed in his pledge to "smoke out" the man responsible for the death of her husband and deliver Osama Bin Laden to justice "dead or alive".

In December 2001 Bin Laden was allowed to escape at Tora Bora. The Bush administration was unwilling to put enough US boots on the ground, fearing casualties.

They relied instead on Afghan warlords. "I was appalled at what happened, it was very upsetting," says Lorie. "It would've been important to have caught him, to have sent a message to al-Qaeda - cut it out," agrees Mindy. "Now it doesn't make any difference."

Belief

9/11 families
Talat Hamdani
He talked about a crusade...and even if it's a slip of the tongue it shows his true feelings
Talat Hamdani

Another 9/11 mother cried when the bombs rained down on Afghanistan. Talat Hamdani, a Muslim, came to the great melting pot of New York from Pakistan in 1979.

The Hamdanis became US citizens and the family voted for George Bush in 2000 because Talat's husband told her: "Bush is for the Muslims".

Their eldest son, Salman, disappeared on 9/11 on his way to medical college in Manhattan. Six weeks later his remains were found at Ground Zero.

At first the FBI suspected Salman of involvement in 9/11 but concluded the young paramedic and police cadet was helping the victims when the towers collapsed.

New York dignitaries attended Salman's funeral at Manhattan's mosque but Talat was experiencing an ugly backlash against her community. Neighbourhood posters of Salman were torn down and to this day Talat is afraid to wear traditional clothes outside the house.

"The sentiments of the Western world are against Muslims," Talat believes. She blames George Bush and the language he has used in his war against terror. "He talked about a crusade," she recalls, "and even if it's a slip of the tongue it shows his true feelings."

While the whole nation stood behind their president in September 2001 when he swore to destroy the terrorists, the war in Iraq has split the 9/11 families.

Along an avenue of executive houses in Warren, New Jersey, the Halloween lamps are glowing. Inside one there is the sound of voices raised in argument. Jacquie Gavagan and her brother, Anthony Vaudo, have invited their neighbours, the Montano's for dinner.

Jacquie's husband Donald died in the twin towers six weeks before his youngest child was born. Donald's friend Craig Montano worked in the same office. The two men used to relish the cut and thrust of political debate and their families are continuing that tradition.

Patriotism

9/11 families
Anthony Vaudo
That's what I like about Bush - he doesn't need to determine which way the wind is blowing
Anthony Vaudo

Anthony, a business consultant, has been politicised by 9/11, swinging sharply towards the Republicans.

"I have my doubts about Iraq, especially in recent months, but that's what I like about Bush - he doesn't need to determine which way the wind is blowing" argues Anthony. "He does what he believes in".

Susan Montano is furious. The neo-conservatives around Bush are "crazies who got us into Iraq". Anthony counters in language which echoes that of the president - the Iraqi insurgents are all "evil".

Susan snaps back that they think America is evil - "and no wonder as we've been bombing them for years".

Anthony does not care about European disapproval of the US stance, but Susan believes: "We need to be interested in the rest of the world. We're doing it alone and that's why we've got a serious problem."

As the wine bottle empties and tempers fray, Anthony suddenly put his arms around Susan who weeps on his shoulder. Despite their differences all these families are bound together by tragedy.

Talat Hamdani will not be voting for George Bush this time. She has joined a peace group and attends vigils for those killed in Iraq.

She will vote Democrat - in the hopes of a speedier end to the war and the chance for America to re-join the world community.

For her, the moral low point of the "war on terror" came when she saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib, showing the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers. "America has lost respect and dignity in the world," Talat says.

In the balance

Jimmy Boyle is on the start line of a charity run, in memory of a New York fireman who ran three miles to Ground Zero but did not come home.

Police cadets line the route carrying posters of their dead colleagues. The strains of "America" are being belted out over a waving field of Stars and Stripes flags and Jimmy urges me to feel the patriotic fervour in the air.

He acknowledges that terrorism has now gained a foothold in Iraq because of the US-led invasion, but insists: "We have to stand firm. We mustn't change leaders in a war"

Not only has he made a campaign commercial for Mr Bush, long-time Democrat Jimmy was an honoured guest in the vice-president's box at the Republican convention last month.

He watched as three 9/11 families backed the president's war in Iraq. Does he feel used I wondered?

"I'm not being used," Jimmy insists. "I want him to win and in my small way I hope I help - he's my leader, he's my Churchill."

Across the city, the flags are out for the Democrats too as John Edwards, their vice-presidential candidate, leaps onto the stage asking the crowd to acknowledge "the two extraordinary women" in the front row.

Mindy and Lorie have endorsed John Kerry and are on the stump with their message that America needs new leadership. "I wouldn't mind if they invoked 9/11 to make us safer. But to link it to a war that it had nothing to do with - I just don't understand that," Mindy says.

With just days to go, the election hangs in the balance, but the truth is that both sides are using the power of the 9/11 families to move and influence this nation.

Panorama: Families at war was broadcast on BBC One on Sunday, 24 October 2004 at 22:15 BST



SEE ALSO:
Families at war
18 Oct 04 |  Panorama
Bush is 'my Churchill'
24 Oct 04 |  Panorama
'I think we are at great risk'
24 Oct 04 |  Panorama
Your comments
22 Oct 04 |  Panorama


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