Cashing in on 9/11

The families of some victims are outraged that a Virginia man has used 9/11 to sell a flag. But when George W. Bush used 9/11 to sell a war, they were right there with him.

By Tim Grieve
Published March 15, 2005 5:12PM (EST)

An American flag that may or may not have flown over the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, has just been sold on eBay for $371,300. Families of some 9/11 victims are outraged, and it appears that no one is more upset than Debra Burlingame, who tells the Washington Post that she fears the sale will open the door to others who want to cash in on the tragedy.

It's hard not to be sympathetic to Burlingame; her brother was the American Airlines pilot whose plane was hijacked and slammed into the Pentagon three years ago. And yet, for all of her concern about someone using 9/11 to sell a souvenir flag, Burlingame was apparently troubled not at all when George W. Bush used 9/11 to sell the Iraq war. In fact, she endorsed it. In October 2004, Burlingame wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal in which she attacked a group of 9/11 widows for endorsing John Kerry. In explaining why she was backing Bush instead, Burlingame argued strenuously that the war in Iraq is an integral part of the war on terrorism that began on 9/11. "Saddam may not have had a hand in the plot that killed our loved ones, but American troops [in Iraq] found ample evidence that he wishes he had," she wrote.

Burlingame -- who had previously criticized the 9/11 Commission as a "Beltway soap opera" -- said that "anyone who has actually read" the commission's report "would know that the 9/11 Commission had plenty to say about connections between al-Qaida and Iraq." Burlingame cited various footnotes from the report which, she said, outlined an "Iraq-al-Qaida connection" in "chilling detail." She didn't bother to note the commission's conclusion that Iraq had no collaborative relationship with al-Qaida or that there was "no evidence" to suggest that Saddam Hussein played any role in planning 9/11. Instead, she heaped praise on Bush for invading Iraq to prevent another attack. "We think George W. Bush got it right," she wrote. "We believe this is the right war, in the right place, at the right time."

Oddly, the only other 9/11 family members the Post quotes in its eBay story today are ones who share Burlingame's political views. Tim Sumner, who told the Post that the sale of the flag "feels like blood money," is a co-founder, with Burlingame, of 9/11 Families for a Safe and Strong America. In a guest spot on Blogs for Bush in September, Sumner invoked the death of his brother-in-law on 9/11 in pushing for Bush's re-election. And Marcus Flagg, who told the Post that that he was worried that the eBay sale would lead to the marketing of "all sort of stuff from the Trade Center and garbage pits," joined Burlingame and Sumner in signing an open letter last summer praising Bush for viewing Iraq "through the prism of 9/11" and putting an end to "an intolerable danger to our country."

Burlingame told the Post that she was so flabbergasted that someone would trade on the tragedy of 9/11 that she thought the eBay story was an "urban legend" when she first heard it. She shouldn't have been so surprised. People have been trying to cash in on 9/11 -- both financially and politically -- since the planes hits the buildings. Collectors bought and sold World Trade Center memorabilia; con artists posed as victims and charities; and, just six months after the attacks, the Republicans began offering a photograph of Bush on 9/11 as a come-on for campaign contributions. The Kerry campaign trumpeted the support of the 9/11 widows -- "Jersey Girl" Kristen Breitweiser campaigned for Kerry -- and Bush made memories of 9/11 the centerpiece of his stump speech. Earlier this week, the New York Daily News reported that Bernard Kerik, the former New York police commissioner Bush once wanted as homeland security czar, made more than $75,000 for writing an 11-sentence introduction for a book memorializing police officers and firefighters who died on 9/11.

When news of the eBAY flag sale first broke, Burlingame told the Post that she wondered who would "traffic in human misery." It's a fair question, and it's one that Burlingame and a whole lot of other people might want to ask themselves.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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