9/11 Mom: An Open Letter to George W. Bush
By Donna Marsh O’Connor, Liverpool, NY,
Mother of Vanessa Lang Langer,
WTC Tower II, 93rd floor
Friday 22 October 2004
On the Thirty-third Anniversary of My Daughter’s Birth
Sometimes, Mr. Bush, it’s the smallest of details that makes everything click. The smallest of details. Right now, Mr. Bush, I am looking at your watch. It’s an item of clothing accessory and, unlike your other costumes, it is one that is particularly revealing.
On Halloween my daughter would be thirty-three years old. Her child would be almost three. Seven weeks before her twenty-ninth birthday, Vanessa, four months pregnant, ran from the falling towers of the World Trade Center. She did not make it. Her body, and in it the small body of her unborn child, was pulled from the rubble of the fallen towers on September 24th, just ten feet from an alley between towers IV and V. It is important for me to tell you that she was on the phone to her uptown office five minutes after the first plane hit tower I, explaining how she and others in tower II were “safe.”
Here is what you did regarding specifically the events of that morning: You vacationed before, during and after August 6th, the day you were handed the presidential daily briefing that said very clearly Vanessa Lang Langer and many other Americans were not safe. After the first plane hit tower I, the fact of the PDB did not click in your mind, did not cause you to act, to turn on a television, to contact the Pentagon. You sat so that you did not frighten a group of children. You did not worry about Vanessa’s brothers, or the young children who would certainly be directly affected by that event. You did not, like her fourteen year-old brother, rush from your seat and head for a phone, desperately trying to reach out, to fix, to save. You sat. You said, two weeks to the day before the general election of 2004, that you would protect Americans; that is, according to you, your primary responsibility as Commander-in Chief; no terrorists would get us, no terrorists would attack us (you said this with your arm extended), and I you said and I quote, on your watch. You said this with no sense of irony, no sense, no indication of how that text would sound to those you failed miserably to protect. You never notified officially the airlines, flight schools, persons who lived or worked in our tallest structures. You failed in your watch and on it.
Help me to understand this, because I was looking so closely at your watch. Five minutes, Mr. Bush. Five minutes. In that five minute space my sons lost a best friend, a future that included a loving sister and her future family. And my daughter lost the only thing in life I ever knew she really wanted. In fact, you stood on September 13th, on the rubble that covered my child’s bones and you began your move to have the war you had been planning since the beginning of your term in office. You, Mr. Bush, used my daughter’s murder to perpetrate the most hideous example of racism with the direst of consequences and you did it standing literally on her bones.
I am going to be very honest with you, Mr. Bush. I suspect that your culpability does not begin with your failures that day. It may be imprudent to mention this now because evidence is difficult to produce, but I am one of those pragmatists that rely on some basic fundamentals in crime solving. So let me say, when a crime is committed we are to find suspects by exploring motive, by looking at who had most to gain. You did, Mr. Bush, you and your friends at Halliburton and your friends in Saudi Arabia. And you have never answered for this. Don’t you think with all that has happened it would be in order for you to explain all you have come to gain, now and in the future, in terms of both money and power?
On September 11th, I was in Canada. When I heard the news I was walking in the street, enjoying what was to be the last of the purely beautiful sunny mornings of my life. My cell phone rang. And every second after that call was a mix of panic, dread, calm because this couldn’t be happening, and utter, absolute need to touch my daughter. What would you have done, Mr. Bush? What would your instincts have been? As a parent? I ask this because Senator Kerry during the second debate mentioned you are a “good father.” Are you? Have you made Americans, including your own daughters safer? Let me tell you what I wanted that morning. I wanted to fly to New York, to put my feet on my home soil as fast as humanly possible. I wanted to get to an airport and get home. Not an option for me, Mr. Bush. My husband and I just made it over the border before it closed. And on that morning, when no American citizen was allowed to fly in our airspace, on that morning and the mornings to follow, Americans were grounded. But bin Laden’s family flew. They flew home to Saudi Arabia. Before they were vetted by the F.B.I., by the C.I.A. And worst of all, you never were made to tell the truth about why that was so. I’m sorry, Mr. Bush. I will never understand this. Never. But still: your responsibility was then and is now to explain it. And to explain while that watch of yours leading up to the election is still ticking.
Right now there is a report from the C.I.A. that names explicitly your administration’s culpability regarding those events. Bipartisan leaders have requested, even demanded that those reports be turned over now to congress. You, according to reports, have refused to allow the C.I.A. to release them, just as you refused to testify under oath before the 9/11 commission. Now, Mr. Bush, release them. Before the election.
Right now, Mr. Bush, there are wide-spread rumors of vote tampering all over this country. And let me be clear about this: the rumors are that Republicans are benefiting from this tampering. Instead of enumerating our safeties, perhaps you could show some leadership, Mr. Bush, and demand that it stop now. Demand, Mr. Bush, that in this country our right to vote is protected. Because without that, we are not safe. Wouldn’t you agree?
After the 2000 election, where there were in Florida widespread problems with voting, Mr. Bush, voting in African American communities, you also did nothing. Absolutely nothing. You did nothing to counter the rumors that your brother handed you Florida. Nothing to smooth over what must have felt to African Americans (even if this was just rumor) the painful and the absolute, clear enactment of racial prejudice, not encoded in the ordinary acts of ordinary citizens, but in the very structure of the government that must be protective of all citizens of this country and the world. Why, Mr. Bush, did you fail to go to Florida and demand that these persons’ rights were protected? Or, at the very least, to apologize and guarantee that this would never happen again? What does America mean to you? In August of 2001, the United Nations hosted a conference on racism and Colin Powell, your Secretary of State wanted to attend. You did not allow this because, you said, we don’t have problems with racism in America. Do you see the pattern I am pointing at, here, Mr. Bush? In each case, the problems in this country have been enacted and exacerbated by you and you have attempted to cover them up. How could you do that to Colin Powell? How could you do that to another man?
When your children are young, Mr. Bush, they are often rebellious. They often admire you, but buck you at the same time. One way a mature parent feels this love is sometimes in the very ways in which your children buck you — by using the very part of your example they most admire. Vanessa confronted me every day of her life, especially on the days when she acted most loving. Parent/child things. The kind of things that all someday are made into family jokes when the child becomes a parent and sees that the very methods of touching and teaching and learning come from actions the parent used without thought. I never had that fully with Vanessa, the day when she consciously, because she was parenting herself, used my methods on another generation. But one day, almost there, Vanessa said to me, “Mom, you always made Christmases at home so beautiful?” and then she said, “And you taught us how not to be racist. You have no idea, Mom, how much racism there is and white people don’t always see it.”
I cannot tell you in shorthand, Mr. Bush, how important it was that she said those words before I lost her because unless she did, I would always have wondered, was I in any way that mattered a good enough parent to a woman who would die so young. I can tell you some of the methods I used with Vanessa and her brothers, but let me show you what you did that I had to explain and counter with all three of them:
You refused, when you met face-to-face with James Byrd’s daughter (You remember him, I am sure. He’s the African American man whose head was ripped almost off of his body in Texas by three white men who tied him to their pickup and dragged him along a Texas road.), you refused to sign a hate crimes bill as she begged you, crying. You didn’t even, as Molly Ivins reported, offer her a tissue. In that sense, Mr. Bush, you functioned as a very hostile branch of government, one that we might have predicted would not care if persons of color or persons of the other party were denied the right to vote.
But then, Mr. Bush, you used this tendency of yours, this refusal to get behind most Americans’ desires to eradicate racism by pretending Osama bin Laden is the embodiment of Saddam Hussein and vice versa. One man equals the other. They are both Arabs. Do you own a globe, Mr. Bush? Do you know where Afghanistan is? Do you know where Iraq is? Have you been there since the war began to examine what you have done to the civilians you were going to protect? Interesting detail (and perhaps a warning from G-d): Vanessa, when she got one of her first jobs, bought me a daily planner with a map on it. The map on this particular piece of canvas has in its center Afghanistan. To the right of this small country is a larger country — Iran and to the right of that — Iraq, also small, even smaller (geographically and metaphorically speaking) of Afghanistan. Just under Iraq, writ very large on my daily planner is Saudi Arabia. You know, Saudi Arabia, Mr. Bush. I know you do because the families of 9/11 who got together to bankrupt terrorism, those people who are bringing suit against the Saudis got no help from your administration. None. Though you should know that a coalition of the willing, including France, Spain, Great Britain and Germany have offered help to the families of 9/11 as they try to connect the events of 9/11 to the real perpetrators. There are connections between the Saudis and the terrorists, the terrorists who, no doubt, now that you have opened up a haven for terrorism in Iraq, are growing in number and resources. How much time do you have left, Mr. Bush? What is on your watch? Am I taking too long?
What costume will you wear on Vanessa’s birthday this year, Mr. Bush? Will you dress up as the head of the military or a foot soldier of Prince Bandar or Dick Cheney? Will you wear a white sheet with a cone head, Mr. Bush? Will you pretend you’re a plain speaking, Texas cowboy, with your shirt sleeves rolled up, proclaiming happily how safe you’ll keep us as you point to your watch? Will you dress up again as a good Christian? Will you dress up as a Republican? You are, you know, not a Republican. You have shamed Republicans. I know one thing, Mr. Bush: I am going to try very hard not to have you dress up anymore as Commander-in Chief. In more ways than I have articulated here, that costume does not fit you. I am a proud American citizen, Mr. Bush, who is disgusted that you try to portray yourself as patriotic. You have trampled every value of decency America ever held dear.
Do you believe in G-d, Mr. Bush, really? Really? Because, to me, as a flawed parent, flawed person, flawed citizen, I ask G-d to help me fix my flaws, to forgive me my trespasses. And here’s what I hear Him telling me:
Don’t let him speak for Me. If you do, it is you who fail to watch over your children. You.
See more of Ms. O’Connor’s extraordinary work at The Project for the Old American Century