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In recent days we have seen the best of America — and the worst.
Let me begin with the best.
America’s intelligence services and its sophisticated military killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaida leader who concocted the warped political-theology that led to the murder-suicide mission of Sept. 11, 2001.
In that attack — the deadliest terror strike in U.S. history — 19 al-Qaida operatives, intoxicated by al-Zawahiri’s words, hijacked four commercial jetliners. The operatives first murdered the pilots and most of the flight attendants on each jetliner, reportedly slitting their throats. Then, after taking control of the jetliners, they crashed two into the twin skyscrapers of New York City’s World Trade Center, another into the Pentagon in Northern Virginia and a fourth into a Pennsylvania farm field.
Nearly 3,000 innocent people died. The 19 hijackers, who also died, believed they were carrying out God’s will and earning a martyrs' spot in “paradise.” Or so al-Zawahiri told them.
Meanwhile, LIV Golf at Trump National Bedminster
Fast-forward to now. While al-Zawahiri’s death this week elicited justified and immense satisfaction across most of the non-terrorist world, it also left behind a sobering dose of irony — not to mention outright shame back here in New Jersey.
As al-Zawahiri was killed last Sunday morning in Kabul, Afghanistan, by a missile fired from a U.S. drone, some four dozen professional golfers in Bedminster, New Jersey — on a course owned by former President Donald J. Trump — were paid lavish sums of money to essentially stage a golfing exhibition while rock music was piped in. The money for the LIV Golf tournament — whose slogan is “golf, but louder” — came from Saudi Arabia, which the FBI now concludes was the same source of logistical and financial support for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The golfers saw no problem with this. Neither did Trump. In fact, Trump, who specifically blamed the Saudis on Fox News in 2016 for the 9/11 attacks, had a change of heart as he stood in the heat and humidity of his golf course in Bedminster, and with an unspecified amount of Saudi cash funneled into his business empire.
“Well, nobody’s gotten to the bottom of 9/11,” our former president told journalists.
Nobody? Trump apparently has not read the thousands of FBI documents that point a finger right into the Saudi government, in particular its intelligence service and its Ministry of Islamic Affairs, not to mention its embassy in Washington, D.C. The FBI points to at least a dozen Saudi officials — including the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. in 2001 — as playing some sort of role with the 9/11 hijackers.
When asked, the golfers mumbled their version of “thoughts and prayers” that we hear from clueless gun rights proponents when mass shootings occur. The golfers said their “hearts go out” to the families.
But these golfers were not about to put away their putters and abandon the LIV tournament. They seemed more in tune with Trump, who told the golfers to “take the money” in spite of the criticism over Saudi Arabia’s links to 9/11 and other human rights abuses including the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Such is the worst of America. Thankfully we also had a taste of the best.
Haunted by, and relentlessly drawn to, the stories of 9/11
For two decades, I have followed the 9/11 story. My journey began by crossing the Hudson River on a tugboat on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. It then took me to Malaysia, Israel, the West Bank, Gaza City, Washington, D.C., Iraq and the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
But what continues to draw me back to this story — and often haunts me — are the people who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks. On that Tuesday in September 2001 when smoke and ash blotted out a golden sun and sullied a cloudless sky, children lost fathers and mothers, husbands lost wives and wives lost husbands. Parents lost sons and daughters. Many of us lost friends.
In the New York metropolitan region, many of us were just two degrees of separation from 9/11. Either we lost someone we knew or we knew someone who lost someone. This tragedy was not just something we read about in a book or a newspaper with a distant dateline. The death was up close and personal.
That’s why it’s worth listening to Juliette Scauso.
She was only 4 when her father, Dennis, a New York City firefighter who lived with his wife and four children in Huntington Station, Long Island, was killed in the rubble of the twin towers in lower Manhattan. Like more than 1,000 of the nearly 3,000 people who perished at the trade center, rescue workers never identified Dennis’ body. All they found, according to the Better Angels website, was his mangled firefighter's helmet.
His daughter, Juliette, is 25 now and studying to become a physician at the School of Medicine at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Back in America for the summer, she took time out to to drive to Bedminster to offer a voice of reason amid the cacophonous cloud that seems to envelop Trump and his followers whenever a question of truth and morals is asked.
Scauso joined three dozen other 9/11 survivors and relatives of victims in Bedminster for a protest of sorts against Trump and the golfers. When she stepped to a bank of news microphones to speak, she described the father she lost — a pilot and animal lover, who made Mickey Mouse pancakes and used duct tape to reattach the heads to her broken Barbie dolls.
And then Scauso asked the question that looms now over this uneasy alliance of Saudi money, greedy golf and an apparently uncaring Trump, whose failing golf empire is being bolstered by an influx of money from the same nation that allegedly helped to kill her father.
“How much money does it take to turn your back on your country?” Scauso asked, adding: “Or the American people?”
Moments earlier, Scauso pointed out that “my father wasn’t the type of person who could be bought.” And directing her message again at Trump and the golfers, she said: “I just want you to know that if you were there that day, my father would have run in to save you without a second thought.”
Dennis Scauso died with 18 other men from his firehouse in Maspeth, Queens, which was the headquarters of two of the FDNY's most elite units, Hazardous Materials Company 1 and Squad 288. Today a memorial at a nearby plaza tells passersby that "Squad 288 / Hazmat 1 had the single largest loss of firefighters of any F.D.N.Y. firehouse” in the 9/11 attacks.
But the memorial doesn't tell the full story. Left behind after those 19 firefighters died were more than 50 children who were forced to grow up without their fathers.
One of those children is Juliette Scauso. Amid the moral circus that descended on New Jersey last week, she asked the right questions.
She is the best of America.
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com as well as the author of three critically acclaimed non-fiction books and a podcast and documentary film producer. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Trump's LIV Golf and the death of Ayman al-Zawahiri