Safe at Home Interviews Debra Burlingame

Meet Debra Burlingame, our second profile in resilience.  

We’d love to hear from you! At the end of this interview is information on how to get in touch with us regarding your thoughts about Safe at Home.

Joan Harting Barham: Do you think you would be the committed, outspoken national security activist you are today if your brother had not piloted the hijacked American Airlines flight that crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11?
DEBRA BURLINGAME: There is no question in my mind I would not. I got involved becauseI had to know what happened to my brother on that morning. He had a direct confrontation with the hijackers. He faced these guys without any back-up. So I felt this need to witness it for him, to be there for him in a way, after the fact. Then, driven by my dire sense that this could happen again, my involvement evolved very organically.

JHB: What was your life like up to that time? 
DB: Well, on the morning of 9/11 I was in Los Angeles. I had just moved there after spending all my adult life in New York. My parents had just died. My mother 10 months before 9/11, my dad less than two years before that. I’d been a producer at Court TV, but my job had been eliminated and my daughter had just left for college, so I felt it was really time to make a change in my life. I planned to start my own production company in L.A. When 9/11 happened, I had this deep need to get home to New York, which was wounded and hurt, to contribute, to do something.

JHB: Since 9/11, you’ve tackled a lot of big issues. Let’s start literally at Ground Zero. Your opposition to the International Freedom Center, which was proposed for the site, has yielded tangible results in the September 11 Memorial Center under construction right now. Briefly, what was your objection to the original IFC plan? 
DB: I felt that the International Freedom Center was going to distort the reality of 9/11. We felt it was going to politicize the events of 9/11 because the IFC founders were telling us it was going to be essentially a human rights museum which had nothing about 9/11 in it. There wasn’t going to be anything in it about terrorism. So we said: Wait a minute! Go ahead and do that, but don’t do that right on top of the place where all these people were torn to shreds. Please don’t do it there!

And we won that battle. We won it decisively and now the focus of site will be the story of September 11. And the story will be courageous and raw. My hope for this museum is that when people come out, their lives will never quite be the same. They’ll view 9/11 and terrorism differently. People who experienced 9/11 from watching it on their televisions will be at the actual site. They’ll have a sense of the enormous scale of the destruction, both physically and emotionally – in every way. 

JHB: You’ve written and spoken forcefully in favor of the NSA Terrorist Surveillance Act and the renewal of the Patriot Act. You’re a trained lawyer. How important is that fact to your ability to analyze these issues and to be heard on these issues?

DB: My legal background has been helpful in virtually everything I’ve done because when I hear lawyers talking or debating the issues, I understand what they’re talking about. And I can see some of the holes in their arguments, see their strengths and weaknesses.

For instance, the great discussion about FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] warrants. I was able to call people I know who worked in the Justice Department in the 1990s and ask them to explain what the FISA application process was like. I learned that the process was so cumbersome and remains so cumbersome that the idea that you could have emergency warrants issued when you’re dealing with terrorists is just ridiculous. That was one of things I was trying to give the reader a feel for when I wrote the piece “Our Right To Security” for The Wall Street Journal [January 30, 2006].

JHB: You also worked for several years as an airline attendant. How did that experience inform your campaign against allowing political correctness to overwhelm the case of the imams ejected from the flight in Minneapolis in 2006? 
DB: For seven years, I was a TWA flight attendant based at JFK. I know from my years of flying that frontline airline employees, the ones who interact with the passengers, are totally accustomed to dealing with a virtual United Nations on their airplanes. They’re sophisticated and knowledgeable when it comes to different types of passengers, from different cultural backgrounds, different religious backgrounds, different nationalities, ethnicities and so forth. They’re not easily rattled and they have a finely tuned sense of what is “normal behavior” and what is not. The airlines – and the government – should listen to them very closely. They’re incredibly valuable in terms of anti-terrorism, protecting this country, protecting aviation.

JHB: Do you think it’s valuable to encourage the flying public to be vigilant? 
DB: Not only do I think it’s valuable, I think it’s essential. It doesn’t matter what the government says, it doesn’t matter what laws we pass against racial profiling. You can’t outlaw common sense. You can’t outlaw someone’s sense of self-preservation.

JHB: Beyond remaining alert at airports, what are the most important things ordinary civilians can do to keep America secure? 
DB: Well, I’d say be like the young man who worked at Circuit City who saw videotapes of what he thought was terrorists training. He let the FBI know and they shut down that conspiracy. That young man knew he could be wrong. He was willing to risk ridicule and criticism – being called an Islamophobe. And he did something else that was really courageous: he went public. The FBI were perfectly happy to keep his identity under wraps but he decided it was important to tell the public, to be a role model, and encourage the public to do what he did. So he was doubly courageous.

And so, if you have a gut instinct that something isn’t right, report that. And if you’re wrong, you’re wrong. But what if you’re right and you do nothing?

JHB: You’ve also talked about being informed citizens.

DB: That’s right. Americans need to be discerning consumers of news. I understand that people are busy taking care of their families and working hard every day. But with a little bit of whatever discretionary time you might have, be proactive in informing yourself about your world. That means going on the internet, discovering the news outlets that you find reliable in terms of truth and accuracy.

And the only way to determine whether any given outlet’s analysis is accurate and reliable is to compare. I think the best thing people can do is to be skeptical about what they read in the newspaper, not rely on one source of information, not rely on the evening news network broadcasts. Choose and choose wisely. Don’t accept the mainstream media’s version of what your world is. Americans are smart. I always trust Americans to make the right choices when they have the correct information. You can be a more informed voter, for instance, if you’re not listening to platitudes, if you really know what the politicians’ policies and positions are. And if they don’t have any – you’ll know that, too.

JHB: In terms of maintaining vigilance these long years after 9/11, you’ve suggested that anger can be a potent antidote to complacency. Can you elaborate on that?

DB: I think it’s perfectly understandable that, as years pass, we fall back into old habits. Also I think there’s something positive in viewing the world in an optimistic way and hoping for good things. Who can live in this world of terrorism 24/7? It’s not necessarily even a healthy thing.

But I do think it’s very important that we don’t fool ourselves. My brother died. I have a daughter. She’s 25. Some day hopefully she’s going to get married and have a family. And I worry for her. I worry for her children.
This war on terror is a long war. I do have anger about this. The trick is keeping that anger productive. But, yes, anger is a motivating force for me. And I think what they did on 9/11 should never cease to anger people. Never. It is an outrage.

JHB: When it comes to national security and America’s resilience, what single thing would you most like the next President to do? 
DB: In terms of policy and anti-terrorism tools, I think securing our borders. Remember, a President only has so much political capital. The question is how to spend it. And what kind of results will it yield. I think border security is something that will require spending political capital and I think the results will be significant.  The truth of the matter is: if we have proper identification in this country, not only will it make our country more secure in terms of terrorism, it will eliminate billions and billions of dollars lost because of identity fraud and identity theft. That’s a huge payoff, a huge boon to us in the war on terror.

JHB: Finally, can you envision a time when you’ll return to life as a private citizen, as a Westchester housewife?
DB: Every day I get up and hope for that. But I can’t envision it, to be honest.
A year or so after 9/11, I started thinking in terms of “when this is over”, “when I’ve finished this”, the implication being that I’d get on with the rest of my life. But then, sometime last year, I suddenly realized there would never be any returning to normal for me, that I would never, ever be the person I was before. I realized that there was a permanent loss – not just in terms of my brother – but in terms of who I had been, and what my country had been before. And that was so deeply sad to me that I just put my head down and sobbed.

One of my nephews was in the Peace Corps in Romania on 9/11. When he’d returned to U.S., he told me, “I came home to a different country. The country I left is gone.” That made me so sad for him and for his generation, this young generation fighting this war on all these fronts for us. Yet I have great hope for them because I think they’re really tremendous.

Debra Burlingame is the co-founder of the 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America website and is on the board of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. She lives in Westchester with her husband, and has a grown daughter.  

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Safe at Home Editor Joan Harting Barham is a writer and editor who has spent more than two decades communicating to and with women. In New York City, she served as a Senior Editor at Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle magazines and in Toronto, where she currently lives with her husband, as Editor-in-Chief of Fashion magazine. Joan has interviewed such luminaries as First Lady Nancy Reagan, business titan Leonard Lauder, and Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins.

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Note – The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, views, and/or philosophy of The Family Security Foundation, Inc.

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