I was ready to give up on Ann Coulter. Even as a fan and a strong conservative, I found her questioning of the 9/11 widows in Godless hysterical and heartless. I thought it sad that such a brilliant mind had become unhinged. Saying that the Jersey Girls, the four women who lost husbands at 9/11, were “enjoying” their husbands’ deaths? Ann — time for rehab.
But then I saw the response from Kristen Breitweiser and the other 9/11 widows. Despite myself, against myself, a small fissure found its way into my disappointment. Don’t bring it up, I told myself. To question grieving people is an attack not on their politics but their personhood. It is beneath you. Let it go.
But the more I saw the Jersey Girls’ press release, the more that fissure widened. They defended their criticism of the lack of preparation for 9/11 — a lack they claim continues to this day — and called for civil right oversight, stronger border security, and better defense at ports and airports. Before the list came this: “Contrary to Ms. Coulter’s statements, there was no joy in watching men that we loved burn alive. There was no happiness in telling our children that their fathers were never coming home again. We adored these men and miss them every day.”
I read that, and a thought came to mind. I tried to push it away, ignore it. But I simply could not get that line out of my mind: “there was no joy in watching men that we loved burn alive.”
But I couldn’t get around it.
What person describes the death of a loved one in such detail?
Think about it. Think about people you’ve loved who have died, and how they died. When I was in high school in the early 1980s a friend was killed in a devastating driving accident. There was an open casket at the funeral, and afterwards me and a group of buddies went to the roof of one of their houses and sat there talking all night. We talked about football, girls, sadness, the weather, depression, our parents — everything except what we saw in that coffin. To this day it’s referred to as “the night Dale (not his real name) died.” Ten years ago, my father died of cancer. I can hardly bring myself to say the word, much less describe what he looked like and went through in the last months. When I meet someone who had a loved one suffer a similar fate, the conversation always trails off when we mention our common story. One of us will mutter, “it’s a terrible thing,” then change the conversation.
Curse me, I know I’m going to hell for this: Why did the Jersey Girls describe the deaths of their husbands with such startling precision? “Men that we loved burned alive.” My mind wanders back to the victims of the Lockerbie bombing. In one powerful episode that was recounted in Harper’s magazine, the father of a girl who was killed when the plane went down asked about justice. He turned on the reporter and said, “How can there be any justice in this cruel world?” It is to make one weep. This poor soul gave no details, but delivered a powerful existential wail of pain: how can the cosmic scales of justice be righted when I’ve lost my girl? Think of that space in death (and the ineffable splendor of love) that unites us as humans created by God. It’s the space that creates a zone of quiet respect, mystery, and even fear that stops us short of details when the death of a loved one comes up. We evade out of deference to the tragedy of death, its inevitability, and the idea that it is a mystery allowed by God that we may at some point get to understand. It is where we are equal as persons, and politics disappears.
To inspect the details of death, reveal them, announce them, is often the province of the propagandist or social activist. It’s the gun control advocate who announces at the town meeting, “My son’s brains were splattered all over me.” The seatbelt champion showing slides of bodies in pieces. The reporter who will pick over every drop of blood spilled at Haditha.
It was the Paul Wellstone funeral.
When Ann Coulter doubted the 9/11 widows’ grief, one way to prove her wrong would have been to respond not with a bullet-point memo about the failures of George Bush, but to simply say: Ann, you have entered a sacred space and violated it. We will not describe how our husbands died — that is a silent place of pain between us and God. We have political differences with Miss Coulter, but we do share a common humanity. It is that humanity which she has soiled. We will pray for her, and for the United States of America.
Instead, they created a visual that no American doubts, or wants to contemplate. Not because we are cowards, but because we know the reality all too well. Our rage — some of us anyway — has hardened into steel resolve to see this through and support those fighting for us. One gets the sense that Breitweiser & Co. decided to rachet up the imagery to score political points. Saying our husbands died because we weren’t prepared just doesn’t pack the same punch as: they burned alive, and Bush could have prevented it — and may cause more of it. One is philosophy, spirituality, and love of country. The other is politics.