The burning questions

I couldn’t help wonder what the dead might have asked. Here we had all these big people, practically the top of the whole government, representing huge failure each time their mouths opened at hearings in Washington last week where, I guess, the objective was to find out how Sept. 11 happened.

Incompetence, of course, is the short answer. And politics sure does play a role as well.

I figured the deceased would have a lot of questions, good ones, too. Given the number and nature of the casualties that day, especially at the largest crime scene, the World Trade Center, the questions would probably have been more direct than those asked by the panel.

For example, Gordy Aamoth, first in alphabetical order to die and originally from Minneapolis, was an investment banker with Sandler O’Neill & Partners. He was 32, handsome and at work in his office that morning as the first plane hit. I could hear Aamoth asking George Tenet, the CIA chief: “How is it that you keep your job? Why haven’t you been held accountable?”

In my mind, Igor Zukelman, last in alphabetical order among the dead, was next. He was a 29-year-old guy who came to New York from the Ukraine and had been a citizen less than a year when he, too, went to work that Tuesday for Fiduciary Trust. I bet Zukelman could have looked Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, in the eye as he wondered: “Tell me why you could not protect the people.”

Many of the dead might have wanted to know why the Clinton administration treated Osama Bin Laden as if he were a deadbeat dad; let’s just drag him to court and sue for peace. Osama stood up in 1998 at a televised press conference to declare war on America, and we threatened him with lawyers.

Nobody knew what anyone else was doing. The CIA was afraid the FBI might steal its secrets, so it was silent. The Clinton people were afraid of military casualties so they did too little, while those who hate used political indifference to calculate an event that resulted in enormous civilian casualties.

Maybe additional victims would have asked Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and Vice President Cheney what we are doing in Iraq at a cost of hundreds of lives and billions of dollars when the plotters, the planners, the killers behind Sept. 11 remain at large in Afghanistan. Why haven’t we gone after them with the same precision, ferocity and intensity we brought to Baghdad, where hammering Saddam Hussein was as tough as beating up a bag lady?

More than anything though, I would have liked to have seen the body language of the powerful when confronted with the questions of children, the spouses, the parents or next of kin of the dead. Here they were, members of two administrations, the Clinton team and now Bush, playing a blame game while the suffering - those left behind - probably cry themselves to sleep more often than the rest of us can imagine.

Amy Sweeney was a flight attendant on American Flight 11. She was the woman, the gutsy hero, who picked up the air phone as the jet hurtled low across the Manhattan skyline to provide the seat numbers of the terrorists to a supervisor on the ground.

Amy was 35. She had two kids, a boy now almost 7 and a daughter nearly 9. Earlier that summer, I was on a flight she worked, and we talked about ice hockey and children. I bet this Rumsfeld, so tough, and his man Wolfowitz would both wither under the stare of those youngsters — and others — left without a mom or a dad because the powerful dropped their duty.

The politicians look into the camera and tell us they did their best, knowing their best wasn’t good enough. Meanwhile, the children and families of the dead stare at an open sky, dreaming of those who disappeared on a day of disaster that might have been stopped if the witnesses in Washington had simply done their jobs.