It's not just personal

Editorial Notebook

April 10, 2004|By Ann LoLordo

THE "JERSEY GIRLS" don't sing backup for Bruce Springsteen. They don't go dancing on the Shore on Saturday night like the girls remembered in The Boss' breezy love song.

Kristen Breitweiser, Patty Casazza, Lorie Van Auken and Mindy Kleinberg do live in New Jersey. But what sets them apart from other 9/11 widows is not their nickname as much as their pursuit of answers to questions that most Americans have neither the interest nor inclination to ask.

They are pressing the highest officials of government for a public accounting of their actions in the weeks and months preceding the terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of their husbands and hundreds of others. The forum is the independent 9/11 commission convened in part through their efforts and lobbying by other victims' families. On Thursday, they were in the front row of the commission room and watched as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testified in public, an appearance that the White House had opposed.

The Jersey girls' interest in what the government knew stems from personal loss. But in their quest these women, unknown to most Americans, are performing a public service that must be acknowledged.

September 11 has become America's shorthand for terrorism, its equivalent of the 1979 assault on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudia Arabia; the 1985 bombing of PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland; the 1995 sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway; the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow. For many Americans, however, the day has been reduced to a series of horrifying images -- planes ramming into buildings, a gaping hole in the Pentagon, the collapse of the World Trade Center, dust and smoke roaring through lower Manhattan. While many Americans may never forget where they were that morning, the shock of the attacks has receded with time, their significance equated to the country's vulnerability.

But the Jersey girls' desire -- determination, actually -- to understand how 19 Saudi nationals could attack the United States and exact such carnage has forced a public reckoning of the government's pre-9/11 terrorism policies. What the Clinton or Bush administrations knew or didn't know, what the White House did or didn't do matters not so we can affix blame, but so we can assess our ability to prevent a similar attack. And the latter is in everyone's interest.

The Jersey girls have come to realize that they speak for more than themselves or the families of the 2,973 who died. Their sense of responsibility extends now beyond their children and those left behind.

"I wanted to give everybody a wake-up that didn't come in the form of a dead loved one," says Mindy Kleinberg, a mother of three from East Brunswick, N.J., whose husband died in the World Trade Center .

"All we're trying to do is get them to be more honest with us (the public), as to what the threats are, involve us in the process and be more accountable to us," says Patty Casazza, another Jersey widow. Others have questioned the women's right to press the government on these issues. Mrs. Kleinberg offers a ready answer and the right one: "It's not because I lost a loved one that gives me the right. That gives me the passion. What actually gives me the right is that I'm an American citizen."

As the 9/11 commission proceeds, its questions may be tedious, and the partisan bickering tiresome. But if it leads to greater safety at home, Americans will be indebted to Mrs. Kleinberg and the others who persevered. And the Jersey girls' legacy will be a nation better informed and protected.

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