Politics & Policy


Barbara Olson's murderers.

Mark Bingham phoned his mother. “I want you to know that I love you very much, in case I don’t see you again.” A short while later, Bingham’s plane crashed in the woods outside Pittsburgh.

Peter Hansen was traveling with his wife and young daughter. He called his parents too. The Rev. Bonnie Bardot, of Easton Connecticut, explained to the Associated Press: “in that way they were together in that moment.” The Hansens’ plane was the second to smash into the World Trade Center.

I didn’t know Bingham or the Hansens. But I did know Barbara Olson. She was a friend of mine. We weren’t particularly close, but we were close enough that she went out of her way to be very kind to me on several occasions and she was like family to some friends of mine. Suffice it to say we were more than close enough for me to ache in a way I never have when I heard she’d been murdered.

In what must be the smallest of all possible consolations for her husband, Ted, Barbara was able to make a phone call too. Presumably — and hopefully — she got to tell her husband she loved him. From the news accounts we only know for sure that she told her husband the plane was being hijacked by knife-wielding thugs and that she wanted advice about what she should do. “She called from the plane while it was being hijacked. I wish it wasn’t so but it is,” Ted Olson said with his usual precision.

Barbara had taken a later plane than she had originally planned so she could be with her husband on his birthday, which was Monday.

But of the as-of-yet uncounted thousands of others who are dead or dying, there’s no doubt that most of them never had an opportunity to tell their mothers, wives, husbands, or fathers that they loved them. The people who leapt to their deaths from the top floors of the World Trade Center certainly didn’t get such a chance.

And this goes to the heart of why the people responsible for this carnage are cowards.

Calling terrorist acts “cowardly” has become so trite these days, I suspect most people have no idea why we do it.

After all, the villains responsible acted boldly, sacrificing their own lives. When Hollywood eventually gets around to telling this story, the terrorists will undoubtedly be portrayed as evil, but it’s unlikely we will see them as timid or fearful — despite the fact the people behind this don’t have enough courage even to accept responsibility.

Perhaps because of our culture’s growing unwillingness to “judge” others — especially other cultures — we’ve defined cowardice in the most superficial terms. But there’s a deeper, more evil form of cowardice.

In 1137, Pope Innocent II banned the use of crossbows — the “dastard’s weapon” — under penalty of anathema because killing from a safe distance, without declaring intent, defies everything the world understands as chivalrous.

More relevant for today, the Church objected to the fact that killing people by surprise didn’t merely deprive the victim of the ability to defend himself, it robbed him of his chance for last rites, foreclosing any chance for final reconciliation with God.

We live in a more secular age. It’s unknowable how many of the victims wanted to make peace with God. But we can be sure they would have wanted the chance to reconcile with their families, if only to say “I love you” one last time.

This is just one of the reasons why the constant comparisons to the villainy of Pearl Harbor are so inadequate. Put aside the hardening fact that many more people died in the attacks of September 11, 2001 than the 2,403 people killed in Hawaii on December 7th 1941. All but 68 of the casualties at Pearl Harbor were military personnel. Even in peacetime, soldiers and sailors assume risks. As heinous and infamous as the assault on Pearl Harbor was, it was nonetheless an assault on a military installation. And even in times of declared war, when the bombing of civilians is a tragic side effect, the non-military population knows that death can come at any time. As paltry as the opportunities may be, people have the chance to settle their affairs with God and family.

But the World Trade Center was no military outpost and until September 11, we were not at war.

Mark Bingham, the Jansen family, and my friend Barbara Olson had no reason to think that their lives would be cut short by fiends with knives and box cutters. That’s why Barbara asked her husband “what should I do?” She was an innocent in every sense.

According to the experts, these villains practiced and prepared for months in their hope to kill tens of thousands of people in an instant. The superficial “boldness” of the villains is irrelevant, their cowardice lies in the fact that the “lucky” ones were able to say “I love you” one last time.

Note to readers:

I had planned on doing my on the road shtick all week as I drive cross-country. Obviously that’s inappropriate now. But I will be filing as much as possible from wherever possible (I’m outside Salt Lake City this morning).

Fortunately, the radio coverage of the attack has been phenomenal, complete with TV simulcasts. So at least, I’m not lacking for information (though Cosmo doesn’t understand why I am so glued to the news). And, the roads yesterday were empty, except for trucks.

There is one item I am obliged to deal with now. On Monday’s column I inaccurately wrote that Peter Beinart fired Andrew Sullivan from his post as the author of the TRB column. He didn’t. Andrew’s contract had expired and Beinart simply decided not to renew it. It’s still a loss for The New Republic, but it isn’t the “bad form” I claimed it was.

Beinart called me and very graciously corrected the record. I had written a long silly column about it and the TRB but right before I was about to file, the madness began. Indeed, because of the madness I couldn’t file my syndicated column either. So, you may notice that today’s G-File is pulling double duty dollars as tomorrow’s syndicated column. I don’t do this often but these are pretty unusual circumstances.


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