SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) - “It’s my last first day of school for a while,” 22-year-old Jessica Bram Murphy says from the campus of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
She is filled with enthusiasm as she begins her final year of college.
Her studies in international development have spanned a broad spectrum - from Middle East policy and Arabic to the analysis of developing countries and how they approach poverty. Last fall, she spent a semester abroad, studying in an Arabic language immersion program in Amman, Jordan.
“I’m not 100 percent sure of my future plans. I am really interested in the Middle East as a region, and I’m really interested in journalism. I can’t guarantee that will be my aspiration forever, but I’d like to spend more time in the region, perhaps as a foreign correspondent for a news agency,” she says. “I’m also interested in diplomacy and humanitarian work, so going into the nonprofit sector is something I can see myself doing, too.”
At Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, her sister, soon-to-be 21-year-old Leila Nicole Murphy, thinks law school may be in her future one day, although not immediately. Her two majors are ethics, politics and economics, and education studies, both focused in areas of social and political inequality. She also mentors New Haven high school students, leads outdoor trips for incoming students at Yale and teaches yoga.
“I enjoy thinking and reading about the law. I think the law can be used to advocate for change in very powerful ways,” Leila says.
Seventeen years ago, the sisters were beginning kindergarten and nursery school, respectively. Each was in a classroom in schools in New York City on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 11 was flown by hijackers into the north tower of the World Trade Center shortly before 9 a.m., the first of the terror attacks to strike the U.S. that day.
Their father, Brian Joseph Murphy, 41, was at work as a vice president with Cantor Fitzgerald Securities on the 104th floor of the north tower. His specialty was the then-new world of e-bond trading. By day’s end, he would be one of three natives of Westfield, Massachusetts, to perish at the trade center. Tara Shea Creamer was aboard Flight 11, and Daniel P. Trant was also at work for Cantor Fitzgerald.
“I don’t really remember much. It was my second week of kindergarten,” says Jessica. “Memory is an odd thing. I certainly have fabricated memories, imaginings of him, but I don’t know if I have actual memories of my dad.”
Leila was just 3 years old and would turn 4 three weeks after the attack. She says she remembers nothing of the day, nor does she have any memories of their father.
As they grew up in Manhattan, their mother, Judith Bram Murphy, and members of their extended family shared stories of their dad to help ensure they understood the man he had been. “My mom wanted his presence to be in our lives, so there have been lots of photos and the telling of stories,” says Leila.
Their mother is a clinical psychologist and thus, each sister shares, is acutely aware of how different the process of grief and trauma has been for each of them.
Anniversaries of 9/11 during their early childhood would often see them participating in the ceremonies at Ground Zero and more recently at the national memorial built on the site of the trade center.
As teenagers, they participated in a summer camp program that brought together children from around the globe whose lives had been touched by violence. It proved a touchstone for their exploration to learn more about 9/11, they say.
“The peace building camp … really opened our lives to the violence that exists in Afghanistan, Palestine and other places around the world. It was pretty impactful for both of us,” says Jessica. “It’s kind of what started my interest in the Middle East.”
For Leila, having a camp roommate from Palestine brought home for her that 9/11 was not an isolated event. “I think I realized there are a lot of places in the world where senseless violence happens all the time, whether it be because of terror, war or military intervention,” she says.
Neither was aware, though, of the events which have been unfolding over the past six years at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where five men accused of helping mastermind the 9/11 attacks are incarcerated and facing trial before a U.S. military tribunal.
“I was a young child who grew up in the post-9/11 world,” says Jessica. “There was never really a shift between the two for me, even though for the whole world, there was a dramatic shift. I’ve become aware of a lot of the history of what happened in Iraq five years later. As I learned more about this, it’s made me increasingly confused and upset. I’m still in the process of reading, learning and understanding some of the many atrocities that happened in the wake of the attack.”
Then, last fall, they read an Op-Ed piece published in the New York Times, “Guantanamo Is Delaying Justice for 9/11 Families,” by Julia E. Rodriguez, a history professor at the University of New Hampshire who is a member of the organization September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.
The author’s brother, Greg Rodriguez, was among those killed at the World Trade Center on 9/11. In the piece, Rodriguez described her participation in a program that brings victim family members and first responders affected by the 9/11 attacks to Guantanamo to observe the pre-trial hearings. It sparked the Murphy sisters to contemplate following in Rodriguez’s footsteps to Cuba.
“I didn’t know the men accused were in Guantanamo Bay. I thought it was one and done with (the 2011 killing of) Osama Bin Laden,” says Jessica.
Leila took the lead, setting up a meeting for the two of them with Peaceful Tomorrows in New York City in January. “I think once we found out more about the program, because we are both intellectually interested in issues related to U.S. policy related to Middle East and international relations … we thought it would be a great opportunity to learn a lot,” she says. “I do want to see justice done, and it’s important to know about it.”
There were reservations, Leila acknowledges. Their mother did not want to make the trip herself and had concerns about the impact it might have on each of them emotionally, she says.
“My sister and I were both very young when (9/11) happened. It was traumatic in different ways for each of us and (going to Guantanamo) could be re-traumatizing,” Leila says. “I think for most of my childhood I did not want to be singled out. People can have very dramatic reactions. I didn’t want to be pitied so I kept it hidden, even from close friends. I really detached the national tragedy from my personal tragedy. … I was really focused on the loss of my father, (but) I was privileged in a lot of ways so did not have to deal with that loss.”
“It almost feels like there is a burden on me, not in a negative way, when your life starts with something so hateful and out of your control, all I can try to do is try to understand, extend love and respect, (and) to understand what I can and do what I can,” Leila adds.
“It was a haphazard decision in some ways,” remembers Jessica of how they agreed they wanted to visit Guantanamo. “(My sister and I) have that in common. We like to take adventures, but I think it was more calculated than that underneath the impulsive act.” Both were grateful, she notes, to learn there are members of other 9/11 families who share their politics, being opposed to the death penalty, advocating for peace and searching for non-violent responses to all forms of terrorism.
Jessica also says she felt “a weird sort of responsibility” to take the trip “given the U.S. is acting on behalf of victims and family members.” She adds, “It’s a difficult place to be when you are personally impacted by such a public national event. Since I have a stake, I wanted to make sure I knew what is happening.”
Along with other NGOs (non-government observers), the sisters were part of a group who flew via military aircraft from Andrews Air Force Base in July and were then taken by boat to Guantanamo for what were to be five days of pre-trial hearings. Defense lawyers were among those on the trek. It wound up being only two days of hearings as two other days of proceedings were closed sessions and one was canceled, according to Leila. The down days involved sightseeing of the island, including a visit to Camp X-Ray, the first and most notorious of the facilities at Guantanamo where the first captives were brought and where incidents of torture and mistreatment were reported to have occurred.
For the court proceedings, the sisters sat with other observers in a room, separated from the defendants by a wall of glass and listening via audio on a 40-second delay, making it disconcerting at times.
“The hearings focused on torture and what the prosecution has released to the defense. I think some family members wonder why does this matter,” Leila says. “While I think it does matter to talk about torture, I can have empathy for the CIA and military because no one really knew what to do. I think we should have accountability for the U.S. missteps post-9/11.”
“I am morally opposed to the death penalty, especially given the torture. I try to empathize with everyone, but I do think there should be justice done and some form of punishment,” Leila shares. “I don’t think this is the way we should be doing it.” She suggests trying the defendants in federal court - a move the Obama administration sought in 2008 but which was blocked by Congress - might result in a far more expeditious and less costly judicial process for all.
For her, the trip proved impactful in many ways. “Healing is a long process. I’ve definitely had to process a lot of emotions because I couldn’t really process them at 3 years old. I am still processing it. It’s been hard in the weeks in post-Guantanamo, (but) I think it was really a worthwhile trip.”
For Jessica, there were points during the trip in which she felt she was participating in some sort of charade as the reality of what was transpiring struck home. It also “made me think really, really deeply for both sides.”
“I was waiting to feel something. It’s hard to explain,” she says. “I don’t think they’re innocent nor that anyone thinks they are innocent. They are Islamic jihadists. … I didn’t feel anger. I felt a lot of confusion, curiosity and sadness. It’s sad, and a reminder of how sad 9/11 was, and how many people were affected and how many lives lost.
“That sadness isn’t directly connected to these men, no matter the outcome,” she adds. “There is no way they are going to be released.” Like her sister, Jessica says she feels “there is significant evidence they are guilty (and) probably deserve life sentences.”
How each woman spends a particular 9/11 anniversary now depends on where she is.
Says Leila, “I always talk to my mom and sister that day. I have very close friends so I definitely spend time with them. I try to take care of myself and remember my dad.”
For Jessica, last year’s anniversary saw her in Jordan where the Arabic immersion program required students to speak only in that language. “I did feel pretty emotional, kind of confused. I don’t want to associate Muslim or Arabic people with 9/11. It’s a connection I feel vehemently against. I don’t associate that culture or religion with 9/11. It was one of the reasons I started learning about it.”
Jessica remembers she mentioned to the mother of her host family “how I was kind of sad my dad died on this day. It was a struggle to explain.” Then, the woman figured things out. “She was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I so sorry,’ (adding) that it was Arab people who did it. Even she made that connection, and I thought, ‘How acceptable is that?’ I didn’t even know what to say.”
The following day, the mother circled back in their discussion and shared how there had been a terror attack in Amman on Nov. 9, 2005, one in which suicide bombers killed 60 people at a series of hotels. “She wanted to show me that we shared this common loss and took me to the memorial site,” Jessica remembers of what she says was a particularly inspirational moment for her.
As each anniversary comes to pass, Jessica says, “I try to think of my dad, and I do. It’s hard to think of someone who you don’t really know, but in a lot of ways I do feel connected with him. I have a lot of qualities I know I didn’t get from my mom.”
Their aunt, Ann Murphy, says it’s her nieces’ curiosity and love of adventure and travel that most mirror the brother she misses to this day. Asked what he might think of his children, she doesn’t miss a beat: “Oh, Brian would be tremendously proud of them. You do see Brian in them. It’s unbelievable.”
She remembers with laughter his post-master’s degree summer adventures, which took him and three friends off on a “grand vacation,” first to California, then to Maui and on to New Zealand, Australia and Tahiti, from where he called home, asking his parents to change his flight reservation so he could extend the journey by an extra week.
“I would not be going on those adventures,” Ann Murphy says. “Brian loved to travel. He loved to meet people. He was very social, very adventurous and curious about the world. (Jessica and Leila) are the embodiment of his spirit.”
Retired as an English teacher from Southwick-Tolland Regional High School, she marvels at the women the two have become. “Given the fact their dad was killed in 9/11, they might have gone the other way where intolerance exists. (Instead) they want to improve the world,” Ann Murphy says.
She credits the guidance of her sister-in-law, who, she says, “did an excellent job in raising them, exposing them to opportunities which have led them to be dedicated in pursuing causes they believe in.”
“I am very proud of the fact that they have pursued higher education with enthusiasm and exploration. They are not afraid to try new subjects,” Ann Murphy says. “They want to experience the world and, once they do, they want to improve the human condition, to make a difference in the world. I’m convinced both of them will.”
Information from: The Springfield (Mass.) Republican, http://www.masslive.com/news/
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