In the Moment of Greatest Calamity: Terrorism, Grief, and a Victim's Quest for Justice

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On August 7, 1998, bombs exploded at two United States embassies in East Africa. American anthropologist Susan Hirsch and her husband Jamal, a Kenyan, were among the thousands of victims, and Jamal died. From there, Hirsch went on to face devastating grief with the help of friends and families on two continents, observing the mourning rituals of her husband's community to honor him. When the alleged bombers were captured and sent to New York to stand trial, she witnessed firsthand the attempts of America's ...

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Overview

On August 7, 1998, bombs exploded at two United States embassies in East Africa. American anthropologist Susan Hirsch and her husband Jamal, a Kenyan, were among the thousands of victims, and Jamal died. From there, Hirsch went on to face devastating grief with the help of friends and families on two continents, observing the mourning rituals of her husband's community to honor him. When the alleged bombers were captured and sent to New York to stand trial, she witnessed firsthand the attempts of America's criminal justice system to handle terrorism through the law.

In the Moment of Greatest Calamity is her story--a tale told on many levels: personal, anthropological, legal, and, finally, political. The book's central chapters describe Hirsch's experience of the bombing trials in a Manhattan federal court in 2001, including a behind-the-scenes look at the investigation leading up to the trial, encounters with some of the FBI's leading terrorism investigators, and many moments of drama from the proceedings themselves. Hirsch reveals the inner conflict that results from her opposition to the death penalty and concludes that the trial was both flawed and indispensable.

Hirsch's story of this tragedy and its legal aftermath comes to life through--and is enhanced by--her skills as a social scientist. Her unique viewpoint makes it unlike any other story about terrorism.

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Editorial Reviews

The East African - Kevin J. Kelley

In the Moment of Greatest Calamity stands as by far the most thorough examination of the embassy bombings and the subsequent trial of four of the perpetrators. An American anthropologist with long personal and professional involvement in Kenya and Tanzania, Hirsch is uniquely equipped to bridge the divide separating her American readers from her East African subject matter.
From the Publisher

Winner of the 2007 Herbert Jacob Book Prize, Law and Society Association

"Susan Hirsch has turned [her] experience into a powerful book, one fully engaged with her experience of grief and loss but equally so with analysis of these questions of justice, and with how the pursuit of justice interacted with her status as a victim, a survivor, a widow, an anthropologist."--Daily Kos

"In the Moment of Greatest Calamity stands as by far the most thorough examination of the embassy bombings and the subsequent trial of four of the perpetrators. An American anthropologist with long personal and professional involvement in Kenya and Tanzania, Hirsch is uniquely equipped to bridge the divide separating her American readers from her East African subject matter."--Kevin J. Kelley, The East African

Daily Kos

Susan Hirsch has turned [her] experience into a powerful book, one fully engaged with her experience of grief and loss but equally so with analysis of these questions of justice, and with how the pursuit of justice interacted with her status as a victim, a survivor, a widow, an anthropologist.
The East African
In the Moment of Greatest Calamity stands as by far the most thorough examination of the embassy bombings and the subsequent trial of four of the perpetrators. An American anthropologist with long personal and professional involvement in Kenya and Tanzania, Hirsch is uniquely equipped to bridge the divide separating her American readers from her East African subject matter.
— Kevin J. Kelley
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691121369
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 9/18/2006
  • Pages: 310
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan F. Hirsch is Associate Professor at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. She is the author of "Pronouncing and Persevering" and the coeditor of "Contested States".

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Read an Excerpt

In the Moment of Greatest Calamity Terrorism, Grief, and a Victim's Quest for Justice
By Susan F. Hirsch Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2008
Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13841-1


Introduction ON AUGUST 7, 1998, two truck bombs exploded almost simultaneously at U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The blast in Dar threw me to the floor, scattering a wad of money the embassy's cashier had just handed me. I managed to stand and, with plaster and dust raining down, escaped out a nearby exit. Ignoring warnings to seek cover, I ran toward the embassy's main entrance. I was desperate to find my husband, Abdurahman Abdalla, who had been standing outside, waiting for me while I cashed a check. In one direction barbed wire blocked my path to him, in another crowds surged between us. A third route was a gauntlet of burning cars. Hysterical in my efforts to reach him, I eventually allowed a Tanzanian doctor to take me to a hospital where he insisted I would find my husband being treated for injuries and could receive care for my own abrasions and shock. After a day-long search of Dar's hospitals, I found my husband. He had been standing just yards from the truck bomb when it detonated. He was killed, along with eleven others nearby.

The embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania shattered the peace in East Africa. Together the blasts killed more than two hundred people and injured thousands. Most of the casualties were Kenyans, like my husband, and a few dozen shared his Muslim faith. Among the dead were twelve Americans, all U.S. government employees. Seen in hindsight, the bombings were early indications of al Qaeda's commitment to attack U.S. interests and forecast a new moment in American awareness of the threat of terrorism. Although only a few people realized it at the time, the embassy bombings were a wake-up call to the United States and to the world about the operations and goals of a new sort of enemy, and the distinctive and deadly tactics it would deploy in a long-planned war.

In the immediate aftermath of the embassy bombings, family and friends on two continents helped me to face the shock, grief, anger, confusion, and guilt that envelop and torment victims of violence. As the acute trauma abated, the urgency of questions grew about who had carried out these horrific acts and how. I found myself increasingly preoccupied by another question: Why? Why had the embassies been attacked? I began a quest to answer this and other related "why" questions, for myself, my husband, our families, and everyone else affected.

My search for an explanation was far outpaced by officials on several continents, who pursued the perpetrators and collected evidence of their crimes with the primary goal of bringing to justice those responsible for the bombings. The United States launched the largest criminal investigation ever undertaken abroad, and within months more than twenty men were indicted and several apprehended. Because the bombings targeted American citizens and embassies, which are considered U.S. federal property, four of those in custody faced trial in a federal court in Manhattan. The embassy bombings trial-held in the first six months of 2001-was an extraordinary public forum, where the U.S. government assumed the multiple responsibilities of acknowledging victims' losses and communicating to an inattentive public the threat posed by al Qaeda, as well as establishing the guilt or innocence of the four men on trial.

The U.S. legal system decisively shaped my quest to explain the bombings, as the trial drew me in with the promise of answers. Much of this book focuses on what I learned about the embassy bombings, and terrorism more generally, by participating in the embassy bombings trial and attempting to make sense of it as an anthropologist and a victim. Yet the book also focuses on what the trial failed to explain. As a response to the bombings, law ultimately left me unsatisfied, wanting-with even more intensity-an explanation, an answer to my question of why.

My husband and I met in the mid-1980s, when I arrived in Malindi, his coastal Kenyan town, to undertake a year-long study of contemporary Islamic law courts for my doctoral dissertation. His nickname was Jamal, which means beauty. His father, a respected elder in the Swahili Muslim community, was a key informant for my project, and his extended family welcomed me into their homes and lives. It was the anthropologist's ideal of intensive research, what we call "participant/observation." My relationship with Jamal developed over the next decade, as I worked toward my degree and Jamal built a small family business and gained stature as a community leader. With Jamal's assistance, my writing about life and law in Malindi highlighted the richness of Swahili culture, with its dual origins in Africa and the Middle East, and the uniqueness of coastal East African Islam, with its emphasis on piety, moderation, and pluralism. When my book was published a few weeks before the bombings, we celebrated its portrayal of Kenyan Muslims, which countered common misconceptions of Islam as hostile to the West, or inherently fundamentalist or sexist.

Ours was an unlikely but successful love, partnership, and understanding across continents, "races," religions, cultures, languages, and ways of life. Just two weeks before his death, Jamal and I had stopped in the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam to pick up his immigrant visa for his first trip to the United States. After years of negotiating distance, we planned a fresh start together.

The embassy bombings destroyed our plans.

Just hours after the explosions, the unquestionable power of law to define the event became evident to me when Dar es Salaam's main hospital refused to release the victims' bodies, citing instructions from "American officials." We were caught between two legal systems: American criminal law, which required a thorough investigation, and the Islamic rules that mandate burial before sunset on the day of death. Waiting increased my anxiety, and Jamal's family in Kenya was understandably, though frantically, insistent to have him returned to Malindi for a proper burial as soon as possible.

Over the next two days my telephone rang constantly, and, pacing my apartment at the University of Dar es Salaam, I fielded dozens of sympathy calls and visits in a haze of shock and grief. Jamal's family called every couple of hours to check on the status of our return. As I negotiated logistical snafus with the numb efficiency that can be an aftereffect of trauma, CNN International blared nonstop for the many friends and colleagues who came to pay respects. Over and over Osama bin Laden's picture appeared with statements explaining nothing: "A Saudi businessman linked to terrorism, he is suspected of involvement in the East African embassy bombings." Tanzanian friends, some Muslim, were confused. None of us had ever heard of bin Laden or al Qaeda. "If he did it," one asked, "why don't we know anything about him?" Another remarked, "He looks like an old man. How could he have done something like this?" "They say he did this all the way from Afghanistan. Where is that? It's not even in Africa."

Three days after the bombings, it seemed we would never leave for Kenya, and the growing tension brought on bouts of hysteria. In a rage born of frustration and grief, I called the official in charge at the U.S. Embassy, Deputy Ambassador John Lange, and demanded the release of Jamal's body. Taking on my anthropologist's role as an interpreter across cultures, I explained that Jamal's family was Muslim, which meant that an immediate burial was imperative. Ambassador Lange apologized for the delay. He said he had just gotten off the phone with President Bill Clinton, who had asked him to do two things. First, the president wanted his sympathies conveyed to the victims; and, second, he urged Lange to take every possible measure to preserve evidence from the crime scene. Hearing this, I resigned myself to wait until the autopsies were completed. Five days after the bombing, Jamal's body was released, and we left for Kenya where he would be buried and I would begin the long process of pulling together my shattered self.

Less than two weeks after the bombings, President Clinton ordered missile strikes on targets in Khartoum, Sudan, and Khost, Afghanistan. The strikes leveled both a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant alleged to be manufacturing chemical weapons and a military camp in Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden and his top military advisers were believed to be meeting. Although the U.S. government never released a report on the strikes (codenamed "Infinite Reach") at least two dozen al Qaeda personnel were presumed killed in Afghanistan (but not the intended high-ranking targets), and a Sudanese security guard died in Khartoum. The simultaneous timing of the strikes conveyed to the world, and especially to enemies, that within a matter of days the U.S. could mount an attack even more strategically complex than the dual embassy bombings.

At the same time as they demonstrated U.S. military prowess, the missile strikes pronounced a quick verdict on the question of who bore responsibility for the bombings: the mastermind was Osama bin Laden, a Saudi national who had once lived in Sudan, and they were carried out by his operatives, many of whom, having fought-with U.S. support-against the Soviets in Afghanistan, were still training there. Yet the clarity of the missile strikes as verdict and punishment blurred almost on impact. Cynics, especially political watchers in the United States, charged that the offensive was a version of "Wag the Dog" foreign policy designed to direct attention away from Clinton's scandalous involvement with a White House intern. Even fairer-minded critics wondered about the wisdom of almost instantaneous retaliation with little evidence presented and no apparent military follow-up. Responding to the flurry of criticism from friends and foes, U.S. officials justified the missile attacks as "self-defense" permitted by Article 51 of the U.N. Charter. As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright proclaimed, "When the United States is attacked, when our people are taken out, we will stand out unilaterally in self-defense and really let the world know what we believe in."

So soon after the bombings, I had a hard time finding the words to express my opposition to the missile strikes. My gut feeling was that more violence could not possibly be productive. The missiles risked killing people uninvolved in terrorism, and, in my state of grief, I regretted the sorrow that would result from more deaths. I was also concerned that the U.S. government's swift resort to a display of force risked furthering the resolve of those determined to commit violence, and I felt scared for myself and for Jamal's family in East Africa. When some U.S. officials depicted the strikes as a justifiable means to avenge the suffering of "innocent victims," I became angry. Abhorrent to me was the reality that I, as a U.S. citizen, as well as a victim of the bombings myself, would be forced to bear responsibility for the missiles' destruction.

As the controversy intensified, I grew increasingly skeptical of the U.S. government's quick attribution of responsibility. In my mind, determining who had accomplished these horrific acts would require some effort and take a long time, indeed should take a long time. I had the crushing feeling that if the U.S. government knew exactly who had harmed us, precisely where they lived, even their tactics and methods so certainly and so soon after the bombings, then it might have known enough to prevent them. In the swarm of my tangled thoughts and fears, a strong suspicion kept emerging: my own government might be guilty of failing to protect us.

The belief that the American government bore some responsibility for the destruction was a persistent, biting charge, especially in Kenya, where people expressed anger at the United States for, as they saw it, the embassy's vulnerable location in the busiest part of town and the U.S. government's rumored failure to heed warnings of an attack. Citing American callousness and racism, they also criticized the restrictions that U.S. personnel, particularly the Marines guarding the embassy, had placed on Kenyans who had tried to help after the bombings. An even harsher criticism charged that preserving documents-rather than people-was of primary concern to those who secured the embassy. Americans attached to the embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam-many of whom had been injured in the attacks-were stunned by the acrimonious charges hurled at them and their government, and by what they believed were distortions that put the United States in the worst possible light. Such criticism led an American State Department employee, taxed beyond her ability to remain diplomatic, to insist hysterically, "How can they blame us? We wouldn't bomb our own people. We are hurt. We are the victims." But the image of America as a victim-so keenly felt by Americans staggered by the attack- was harder, or impossible, for others, also suffering, to accept. When a victim is powerful-in this case, the most powerful nation in the world-its very power can attract blame as much as sympathy after an attack. The other side of that truism is that the powerful endeavor to avoid blame, and, by virtue of their power, are well positioned to do so. Five months after the bombings, a specially convened Accountability Review Board issued a report dismissing charges of callousness and racism in the rescue effort as based on rumors, and, most important, exonerated U.S. officials from any specific wrongdoing in relation to the bombing.

Some victims persisted in raising the broadest questions, including, "Why have the enemies of your nation caused such destruction in ours?" Such questions risked rejection for reflecting the rage or irrationality of grief, but in my view the East Africans who asked them were sobered, not rendered irrational, by the bombings. They voiced a critique that centered on their own inextricable connection to a world power pursued by enemies that make diplomatic relations with the United States a dangerous business.

Blame's excess, deflected by the powerful, sadly can end up haunting the least powerful, who assume it. For victims who survived, the tendency to blame themselves was an overwhelming imperative, yet a trap to resist. In those early weeks after the bombing I realized that continuing to survive required a concerted, monumental effort to fight the irrational impetus to accept personal responsibility for the deaths of others, including Jamal. My mind played "what if" games: what if we had not stopped at the embassy? What if I hadn't visited the embassy ladies' room? What if I had insisted Jamal come inside with me? Such questions led nowhere; mercifully others convinced me that victims can get stuck in a maze of self-blame, and I tried hard to redirect my thinking.

The growing emphasis on a criminal justice approach to the bombings was, for some of us, a welcome alternative to accusations left unanswered by those in power and to our own self-blaming tendencies. I put my trust in the promise of an intensive investigation that would expose not only those responsible for detonating the bombs but also their reasons for doing so.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from In the Moment of Greatest Calamity by Susan F. Hirsch
Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents


PREFACE ix
INTRODUCTION 1
Chapter 1:Becoming a Swahili Widow 13
Chapter 2:Recognizing New Identities 42
Chapter 3:Recounting Chaos 71
Chapter 4:Exposing a Conspiracy 102
Chapter 5:Proving a "Jihad Job" 123
Chapter 6:A Victim's Burden 149
Chapter 7:Dramatic Exposures 180
Chapter 8:Representing the Defendant 208
CONCLUSION 241
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 265
NOTES 269
GLOSSARY 289
INDEX 291
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