Families Of Al-Qaida Victims React To Bin Laden's Death

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Melissa Block talks with Susan Hirsch and John Vigiano, Sr., about their reaction to the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces. Susan Hirsch, a professor at George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, is the author of In the Moment of Greatest Calamity: Terrorism, Grief, and a Victim's Quest for Justice. Her husband died in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. John Vigiano Sr. is a retired New York City firefighter. His sons, John Jr., also a firefighter, and Joe, a policeman, died at the World Trade Center on 9/11.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

We're going to hear now from two people I've talked with over the years. Both of them have family members who were killed in al-Qaida attacks.

For Susan Hirsch, Osama Bin Laden's name became a part of her life years before 9/11. Her husband, Abdurahman Abdullah known as Jamal, was killed when al-Qaida attacked U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. She says that last night, when she first heard bin Laden was dead, she had a mixed reaction.

Professor SUSAN HIRSCH (Anthropology, George Mason University): I felt an intense rush of emotion and probably confusion and maybe some fear, and in some ways, surprise, you know, the way when you are thinking about something for a very, very long time and you get to the point where you stop thinking that it might never happen.

BLOCK: I was wondering if over time, if Osama bin Laden did come to personify to you what happened with your husband, Jamal. Was that sort of the face of that tragedy?

Prof. HIRSCH: I think early on, he was. And then as it became clearer what al-Qaida was and his position in al-Qaida shifted, I think he no longer summed it all up for me. I have sort of moved on beyond him.

BLOCK: Was there any part of you that felt relief when you heard he'd been killed?

Prof. HIRSCH: To be honest, no. I think that that little bit of fear turned into a concern, you know, a concern for what might be done in response or retaliation, at least for the short-term.

BLOCK: When you've seen the crowds who've gathered before the White House and at ground zero in New York chanting USA and singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," how did that register with you?

Prof. HIRSCH: It's sort of complicated feelings about it. I completely understand the high emotions that we all feel at this news. But I've heard it described as celebrating his death, and that I can't do. I can celebrate that the administration, the Obama administration was really committed to making sure bin Laden couldn't hurt anybody else. But to celebrate his death is just - it's not an emotion that I have.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm. I imagine you're getting a lot of phone calls today from people, friends, family.

Prof. HIRSCH: I am.

BLOCK: What are those phone calls like?

Prof. HIRSCH: It's an acknowledgement of yet another step. These are all markers and milestones as we move past them.

BLOCK: That's Susan Hirsch whose husband was among more than 200 people killed when al-Qaida bombed the U.S. embassy in Tanzania, as well as the embassy in Kenya in 1998.

Three years later, John Vigiano lost two sons when al-Qaida struck the World Trade Center. John Junior was a New York City firefighter. Joe Vigiano was an NYPD detective.

And, John, you and I a met at ground zero about six months after the 9/11 attacks. Thanks very much for talking with us. It's good to talk to you again.

Mr. JOHN VIGIANO: Yes, ma'am. Same here.

BLOCK: I'm curious to hear your reaction to the news that Osama bin Laden was killed. What went through your mind when you first found out?

Mr. VIGIANO: Well, when I first heard it, you know, it was a certain amount of justice has been served. But the skepticism in me was, was it him? And I wanted to be sure. I wanted to hear it from the president of the United States that it was proof positive. So I waited for the president to make a speech, and I was very moved by it.

I was not elated. I wasn't jumping for joy as if the Dodgers won the series or the Giants won the Super Bowl. It was very subdued because I saw too many people over the last eight years who were injured, maimed, whose families have been destroyed because of this evil being.

BLOCK: You know, when you and I met at ground zero, you were there watching people combing through the rubble pile still six months after the attacks. The body of your son Joe had been found, but the body of John Junior had not.

Mr. VIGIANO: That's right.

BLOCK: Since that time, was John's body recovered? Where his remains ever identified?

Mr. VIGIANO: No. It's never been recovered. And it's, you know, I can only imagine what parents who sent children off to war and got a letter saying MIA. You know, when I was a firefighter during the Vietnam War, it was just three letters in the alphabet, never really understood what they meant. Now, I do. And it's horrible.

BLOCK: I wonder, John, if you've been having a conversation with your sons in your mind over the last 24 hours.

Mr. VIGIANO: Oh, I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VIGIANO: Believe me, I talk to them a lot.

BLOCK: I bet.

Mr. VIGIANO: I do.

BLOCK: What has that conversation been like in the last 24 hours since you learned bin Laden was killed? What is that...

Mr. VIGIANO: Like I told the boys last night when I went to bed, you know, justice was served, son. He did a lot of evil things to a lot of good people. I say, and our Navy SEALs went and got him. And maybe you'll rest a little better.

BLOCK: Well, John Vigiano, it's good to talk to you again. Thanks so much.

Mr. VIGIANO: And you're welcome. Thank you.

John Vigiano Sr. in Deer Park, New York. He told me every night when he says his prayers, he says goodnight to his two sons John Junior and Joe.

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