Rosaleen Tallon kissed her three children good night and went to sleep feeling at peace. The terrorist responsible for the death of her brother, New York firefighter Sean Patrick Tallon, was dead. Her two boys and her little girl had been assured that the “bad man” behind the attacks that claimed their uncle was gone.
But when Tallon awoke Monday to the news that Osama bin Laden had been buried at sea, she was stunned. That was one corpse she would like to have seen for herself, Tallon said, her fiery words underscoring the change this suburban science teacher has undergone in the last decade.
“I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say I was a little dismayed — a lot dismayed,” Tallon said as her 20-month-old son, Paddy, nestled in her arms while savoring a red lollipop. “I think that was too hasty. I would’ve liked the American people to say without a shadow of a doubt, ‘Yes, that’s him.’ ”
Rosemary Cain not only would like to see the body, she’d have happily been the one to fire the shot that killed the man responsible for her son George’s death. And Maureen Santora, whose son Christopher died in the World Trade Center, had a suggestion for where Bin Laden’s remains should go: atop the garbage dump where debris from the shattered buildings, including bones of victims, were piled after the attacks.
It’s not that these women are blood-lusting conspiracy theorists. If anything, their words Monday showed the sharp-edged realism with which they have approached the world since Sept. 11, 2001, a collective attitude that made their hours after Bin Laden’s death perhaps as vexing as celebratory.
How does a mother like Tallon explain such an event to three young children? How does Cain face what would have been George’s birthday on May 13 knowing that his killer got a better burial than her strapping son, who was lost beneath tons of dust, concrete and steel? How do any of the relatives who have redirected their lives as a result of the 2001 attacks move on after the person responsible for the deaths is gone?
In a sense, they don’t.
“I wouldn’t be much of a mother if I didn’t talk about him every day,” Cain said of George, who was a 35-year-old New York firefighter. So on Monday, she pinned a picture of George onto the front of her yellow shirt and did just that. She recalled the porch he had built for her at the family home on Long Island, outside New York City, where she moved with her husband in 1967 when George was young.
“Georgie was just a year old,” she said, running her fingers across a large color photograph of him that she carries when talking about how Sept. 11 affected her family.
When George died, Cain was a divorced mother of four, still living on Long Island and working at an insurance company. She cleaned her house, went shopping, enjoyed life in the suburbs. “I didn’t even like politics,” Cain said. “But we’ve all had to become proactive.”
Cain left her job and now devotes her time to challenging the very authority figures she was raised to revere, including city, state and federal officials who have butted heads with some victims’ families over how to rebuild at the World Trade Center site, handle victims’ remains and preserve evidence.
She recounted with irony that George was born on Friday the 13th. She spoke of the comfort of sitting on the porch when the summer heat sets in. It’s there that she still feels his embrace, Cain said in a sweet voice that seemed incongruous with her stated desire to have killed Bin Laden herself.
But the taking of a loved one, especially by such violent means, changes a person.
Santora, whose firefighter son, Christopher, was 23 when he died, smiled happily as she described Bin Laden as “the head of the snake.” She spoke of her joy at hearing of his death, and said her first thought was that his remains should be dumped in the city’s notorious Fresh Kills Landfill.
“I wish we could go back to the way we felt on Sept. 10, 2001,” said Tallon, who earlier that year had obtained her doctorate from Columbia University and gotten married. She was teaching high school science and biology, looking forward to starting a family, and blissfully ignorant of the topics that today she speaks of with authority: Yemen, Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, Syria, jihad.
“But I’m not living in the bubble I lived in before Sept. 11. My eyes are open,” said Tallon, whose loss of trust in the government and in the systems that failed to protect her brother was clear Monday. “It’s the only way I know how to go forth now — to question things.”
She spoke angrily of the burial at sea, saying it denied people like her the guarantee of seeing a body and knowing without a shadow of a doubt that Bin Laden was dead. She recalled the anguish of watching her parents suffer over the death of their son, a death she says might have been prevented if he had better communications equipment when he entered the World Trade Center to search for victims. “All their dreams, all their hopes for their future to be gone in an instant,” Tallon said.
She lamented having to teach her children — ages 20 months, 6 and 8 — about terrorism “in a childlike way,” by telling them of the “bad man” who had planned the Sept. 11 attacks but who was finally killed by U.S. troops. And she admitted that for all the revelry in the streets and the politicians’ cheerful announcements of Bin Laden’s death, for her there was no euphoria. Instead, there was another day of hammering away at the message that one terrorist leader’s death did not mean the world was safe.
“I’ve had 10 years to learn that capturing Osama bin Laden does not mean this is over,” she said. “This isn’t over by a long shot.”