Chava Zelmanowitz had never held out much hope that the man who plotted the murder of nearly 3,000 Americans, including her brother-in-law, Abraham, would face justice.
“I thought this guy was hiding in some desolate terrain and they were never going to find him,” she said Tuesday. “I thought the president had it on the back burner. But he was tenacious and persevered.”
While elated and “grateful” for news that Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan Sunday, Zelmanowitz and her husband Jack, Abraham’s brother, are still angry. They note the irony that the U.S. took apparent great pains to give the al Qaeda leader a dignified burial at sea and prepared his body in accordance with Islamic custom.
“Over 1,000 of the [9/11] victims never had their remains recovered and didn’t have any burial at all,” she said.
Wilton Sekzer doesn’t mince words when asked bin Laden’s demise.
“I wish he could have succumbed in a more sustained way,” referring to a longer, slower death, “but a bullet in the head is good enough,” said the Vietnam War veteran and former New York police officer, whose son, Jason, then 31, never returned home from work at Cantor Fitzgerald at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Word of the daring raid that ended the biggest anti-terrorist manhunt in U.S. history brought a range of emotions to 9/11 victims’ families, who absorbed the news in different ways, while worried that counterstrikes by sleeper cells or sympathizers could well create new victims and mourners.
Sekzer said he felt “happiness tainted with caution. We got rid of the symbol of what happened on 9/11, but we haven’t gotten rid of the threat.”
Sekzer, a former security chief at the New York offices of Israel Bonds, worries that al Qaeda operatives or sympathizers may launch an attack to signal that their fundamentalist, anti-Western movement is still alive and kicking.
So does Joan Klitzman, whose daughter, Karen, was also among the victims at Cantor Fitzgerald. “The repercussions are unknowable,” she said. “Al Qaeda was not one person. It’s entrenched in the hearts and minds of angry, hostile people … who might do anything for revenge.”
Jewish organizations went on heightened alert following the news, as they do after every global flashpoint involving Islamic extremists, but there was no known threat reported to a specific organization.
In New York, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said via Twitter, “While we know of no specific plot against New York now underway, the Police Department is not taking any chances.”
ABC News quoted a government official warning, “In the wake of this operation there may be a heightened threat to the homeland and to U.S. systems and facilities abroad. Al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers may try to respond violently to avenge bin Laden’s death and other terrorist leaders may try to accelerate their efforts to strike the United States. But the United States is taking every possible precaution to protect Americans here at home and overseas.”
Paul Goldenberg, director of the Secure Community Network (SCAN), which works with federal and local officials to safeguard Jewish institutions, said his group got a “heads up” from law enforcement sources shortly before the White House announced the successful operation Sunday night. SCAN, which was founded by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, immediately issued an alert.
“Once we were notified, our concern was what kind of revenge or retribution these folks are looking for,” said Goldenberg. “There have been cases where a major event unfolds and lone wolves or terror groups related to al Qaeda or bin Laden act here. So our real concern is the lone wolf watching television here who is ideologically attached to the cause or to bin Laden himself.”
Infiltrating cells of sympathetic activists who may have no formal ties to terrorist groups is only possible, Goldenberg said, “if they are using the Internet to try to communicate with people of the same ideology, or using it to purchase items that could be used for weapons of mass destruction.”
Increasing awareness of suspicious activity is another way to thwart terror attacks, he added, since most plotters are known to conduct surveillance of their targets.
“Whether it’s a synagogue, community center or a government building, they want to know when would be the best time for an attack,” said Goldenberg. “The only way to get these people is to be better educated and to have force multipliers [civilians observers] who need to be trained.”
In a situation of heightened alert, Goldenberg said, suspicious activity reported to authorities will be “investigated very differently than it was two years ago. They will start tracking that person through multiple investigative channels. The Jewish community is now very much empowered through our partnership with the Department of Homeland Security.”
The heightened alert comes as the DHS is about to issue its annual request for applications for Nonprofit Security Grants to harden potential “soft targets.” The bulk of that aid in Nw York has gone to Jewish organizations since its inception. The Jewish Community Relations Council here assists organizations in the application process and will hold a training webinar on May 12.
The demise of bin Laden prompted statements of gratitude from many Jewish organizations to the Obama administration and the armed forces.
“This is an extraordinary moment for all concerned about the fight against international terrorism,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “It sends an unmistakably powerful message of American resolve to go after those who would wreak human havoc in the name of their perverted hatred, packaged as fanatical faith.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League cautioned, “We must remain vigilant against the ever-present threat of new acts of terrorist violence inspired by his death.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, and Conference Chairman Alan Solow said bin Laden’s “removal is a blow to global terrorism and hopefully will bring about the weakening and ultimately the dissolution of al-Qaeda.”
But the killing also touched off a philosophical debate about whether it is appropriate in Jewish thought to rejoice in any violent death, even that of a mass murderer.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center, the Jewish Renewal movement in Philadelphia, noted that according to rabbinic teachings, God cautioned angels not to rejoice at the drowning in the Red Sea of the Egyptians who pursued the Jews escaping their bondage.
“I myself would have been a lot happier to see bin Laden arrested to stand trial, but assuming the report that he violently assisted arrest is true, I have no objection to his having been killed,” said the rabbi in an e-mail message. “Yet I was dismayed by the quasi-sports-victory tone of the celebrations that arose around the country — chanting ‘U-S-A, U-S-A,’ for instance. What I myself felt was more like ‘Sad necessity.’”
More appropriate, said the rabbi, would have been a mournful remembrance of the dead from 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But in a Talmudic analysis given to students at Yeshivat Lev Shlomo, a post-high school program in Woodmere, L.I., Monday morning, Orthodox Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz said most sources permit celebration of the death of a person who is “objectively evil” as distinct from someone with whom an individual may have a dispute.
“At the end of the day, when all the dust settles some of the approaches would maybe say not to celebrate,” said the rabbi in a recording distributed by Yeshiva University’s Torah Online via Twitter. “But the large majority would say … this is worthy of celebration. … This is a victory in a battle that has been going on since 9/11 against Islamic extremism. It’s hard to say you can’t celebrate a victory in a battle within a larger war.”
Joan Klitzman, who created a foundation for conflict resolution in her daughter’s memory at Columbia University, said she derives no satisfaction from the killing.
“I don’t believe in an eye for an eye,” she said. “One of my daughter’s philosophies was peaceful settlement, compromise. She would have felt like I do.”
If Israel was willing to bring top Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann to an open trial for his crimes, “even though there was so much evidence” of his guilt, Klitzman said the U.S. could have done the same.
But to Chava Zelmanowitz, “Justice was served.” Her brother-in-law was a 9/11 hero who perished after refusing to leave the side of his handicapped Empire Blue Cross coworker, passing up an opportunity to escape the south tower before it collapsed.
When they heard the news of bin Laden’s death, Chava and her husband, Jack, went to Ground Zero to join in the impromptu celebrations there. They are even considering voting in 2012 for Obama, whom they did not support in 2008. While there is still a “gaping hole” in the lives of victims’ families, she said, there is a measure of peace now.
But for Wilton Sekzer, there is still mostly anger. “There is never any closure when you bury your child,” he said. “A friend of my son’s said, ‘I wish Jason’s name had been on the bullet,’ and I said, I don’t know. … Maybe he was the one that guided it.”