For the accidental activists who became a dynamic force in national policymaking after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., brought a grim sense of déjà vu. Here three of them discuss the memories and responses sparked by the Newtown shootings.
Mary Fetchet, a social worker before she lost her son in the Twin Towers on 9/11, now runs an advocacy group called Voices of September 11th. She spent five days in Newtown to help the families of the murdered children, and attended a Jan. 14 news conference at which members of the community — including several parents who had lost their children in the rampage — launched a group called Sandy Hook Promise. “The families onstage with their photographs, it just was heartbreaking,” Fetchet says. “It brought back vivid memories of our own personal loss. And of course, myself losing a child. He was 24, but still a child. He was at work that day as their children were at school that day. When it’s not safe to go to school or work, there’s a real need — in particular for the families — to try to make sense of what happened. Part of that process is understanding what the failures were. In some way I think that motivates you and you feel a responsibility. As they said, and as I’ve said for 11 years, I didn’t want another mother to suffer the loss that I suffered. And I didn’t want another child to die in the way that my son died. That’s the common thread.”
Kristen Breitweiser, who lost her husband on 9/11, became part of a group called the Jersey Girls — four widows who became expert at using the media to make the case for an investigation by an independent commission and adoption of its recommendations. “We needed to get off the floor. We needed to get out of bed. For me personally, I had a little girl. I was scared to death. I wanted to know that we were going to be safe,” Breitweiser says. Before the holidays, she and the other 9/11 widows discussed possibly getting in touch with the Sandy Hook families this year. “We all felt the need to help these families in any way we could because even though our husbands weren't killed by guns, they were taken by senseless violence — and at the end of the day, we're also just moms with kids who care about the safety of our country,” Breitweiser says. She does have one caution for the Sandy Hook families: “In many ways, they’re not going to be able to hold anyone accountable. Our husbands were killed and that was that. You didn’t get to sit in a court of law and see justice being served. I don’t know that these families will have their day in court. I don’t know how they’re going to get their closure. For me, starting that process of closure and coming to terms with his death was fighting for the commission.”
Carie Lemack, who worked in the high-tech industry before losing her mother on 9/11, now runs the Homeland Security Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “I feel that making sure no one else goes through what we went through is the best way to honor my mom,” she says. She sees echoes of that in the families affected by gun violence — “everyday citizens who had the unthinkable happen to them and want to make sure it doesn’t happen to someone else. I know that feeling. I feel so much for them.” The road may be tough, she says, particularly for parents who have other young children and “can’t just be running off to Washington,” or families that have lost a breadwinner and don’t have the money for the train or gas or a place to stay in the capital. “If these families feel that this is what they need to do to honor the legacy of their loved ones and make nation safe and secure," she says, "I wish them a lot of luck, strength, and perseverance.”