Guest Commentary

Lessons from our family’s 9/11 loss go on

Karleton D.B. Fyfe, the nephew of Bill Tammeus, was on American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
Karleton D.B. Fyfe, the nephew of Bill Tammeus, was on American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Courtesy of Bill Tammeus

Sixteen years after terrorists took control of an American Airlines plane bearing my nephew and plowed it into the World Trade Center, I am ready to visit the 9-11 Memorial Museum and the nearby 9-11 Tribute Museum to see if this calamity makes any more sense than it did in 2001.

As a journalist, I have been to Ground Zero three times, but not since the museums have opened. So I haven’t seen Karleton D.B. Fyfe’s name engraved there, though when friends visit the site they inevitably send me a photo of his name.

What I don’t know is what more I can learn at the museums about why all this happened when my wife and I go in October, why KDBF, as we called him, died just after learning his wife was pregnant with their second son, why the hijackers imagined that they were acting in a way that might bring honor to Islam, the very faith they slimed by their repulsive act that surely broke Allah’s heart.

Since 9/11 I have written extensively for The Star and other venues about many matters arising from that malevolent day. I have traveled to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uzbekistan to get a sense of what Islam looked like centuries ago and how it is practiced today. I have attended several conferences in the U.S. on Muslims in America and how they are negotiating their way into a culture that often seems to view them with both suspicion and contempt. And I have spoken with many Kansas City area Muslims, some of whom have become good friends.

What I know is that the fanatical, violent version of Islam that the hijackers and other followers of Osama bin Laden and his ilk practiced is not the Islam I have come to know, a faith I first experienced when I lived in India for two years of my boyhood. And what I also know is that simplistic, binary, no-shades approaches to religion inevitably lead to trouble, whether from Islamists or from extremist Christians who think white supremacy is in harmony with their faith or from members of any other tradition that makes no room for doubt, for paradox, for ambiguity, for simple neighborliness.

Karleton’s and Haven’s son Jackson has grown into a handsome, artistically talented teen-ager, while Jackson’s brother Parker, whom KDBF never got to meet, is a whip-smart 15-year-old now in high school. Haven has remarried and she and Dan, a terrific human being, have a third son, Owen. The family has made a life, but the shock of 9/11 continues to reverberate in various ways.

As it does for my sister Barbara and her husband Jim, Karleton’s parents. And for Karleton’s two sisters, Tiffany and Erin, and their families. Every single day something happens to remind all of us of this smart, tall, funny young man whom I loved like a son. I still miss getting random e-mails from him that said things like: “Hey, Bill: Do you realize how tall and handsome I am?”

What sometimes takes my breath away is remembering that our family’s sad story is just one of almost 3,000 such stories from that day. And that since 9/11 there have been thousands and thousands of more lives blasted to grief by Islamist terrorists around the world, whether from al-Qaida, ISIS, Boko Haram or other groups that imagine they have a precious inside track on what God wants them to do. Despite all the good that religion has done across history, the acts of terrorism committed in the name of religion at times seem to overwhelm the story and demean religion everywhere.

So I will go back to Ground Zero in New York and I will look and listen, will remember and pray, will see what I might possibly learn that could complicate my thinking about all this. And I will whisper to KDBF, “Damn, I miss you.”

Bill Tammeus is a former Star columnist and author of six books.

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