By Ray O’Hanlon
Like all New Yorkers, Dermot Dix will forever carry troubled memories of Sept. 11. But unlike most, he already has an intimate familiarity with terror in the skies. He lost his brother Peter in the Pan Am Flight 103 explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988. Dix, a Dublin native and high school history teacher in Manhattan, believes that not enough was done to find and prosecute those who murdered his brother and 269 others 13 years ago. And yet, he now finds himself taking a starkly different position with regard to the reaction to Sept. 11.
“Sept. 11 certainly brought back powerful memories,” Dix said in the interview conducted just a few miles from the still-smoldering ruins of the trade towers. “No, I didn’t know Peter was on Flight 103. I was sitting in the kitchen of my parents’ home in Dublin. My mother had seen the news and began to ask, wasn’t Peter meant to fly to New York that night?
“I reassured her that he was booked on another flight. I put a call through to Peter’s wife, Elizabeth, in London, to find out what flight he had taken. The plane had flown from Frankfurt, Germany, to London and was flying from there to New York. So we were appalled at the news but did not think that Peter was in danger. It was hours before we realized that he must have been on the plane. He had changed planes to be with one of his colleagues who was booked on the Pan Am flight.
Dix, like so many New Yorkers, passed through the initial moments of uncertainty into grim realization on the morning of Sept. 11. This time, however, it would be an accelerated process. It would be minutes, not hours, before he knew that something terrible had happened in the air again. He was in school, starting his new day, one of the first of the new academic year, when he learned of the attack on the World Trade Center from a 10th grade student.
The news quickly brought him back to another time and place. But he also understood, in the most immediate sense, what the families who had just been bereaved would be facing in the hours and days after the disaster.
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“When something like this happens, there is first of all a sense of dislocation, not knowing that you have lost somebody. Gradually, you become aware that you have somebody at risk, then there is the slowly dawning realization that you have lost someone.
“The anger doesn’t really arrive at first. There is an enormous overpowering sense of loss, of disbelief, not yet the disbelief that somebody would do this, but that someone who has been such an important part of your life is gone.
In years to come, the families of Sept. 11 will likely ask each other how they got through it all. Dix recalls movement, a heightened awareness of other people, crowds of people, and yet a distance between himself and others, almost as if he was in a dream.
“I remember taking a plane to London with my other brother the day after Lockerbie. It was as if I was moving in a cloud. I was hardly aware of how I managed to get to the airport.
“But it didn’t take too long before my family began to go through a process of grieving, and then moving a little bit beyond grieving to the point that the anger did begin to hit.”
This anger, according to Dix, raises more questions than it answers.
“First of all, you are angry at the notion that somebody would want to kill your loved one and other perfectly innocent people. But interestingly, and I know that this isn’t the case for absolutely every family, we actually felt a more pointed anger toward American and British security authorities when the extent of the information they had about the bombing before it happened became apparent.
“The American Embassy in Moscow had warned its staff not to take Pan Am 103 over a two-week period and we gathered later that they knew the group that planned to plant the bomb was going to use a Toshiba radio case. They had extraordinarily detailed information from the Mossad [Isr’li intelligence].
“Most of the early Lockerbie leads pointed to Syria and Iran,” said Dix.
“But what became clear after the start of the Gulf War was that Syria was a useful ally of the United States and Iran was usefully neutral. It became understandable, from a political point of view, but not from the point of view of justice, why the American government and its British junior partner might want to soft-pedal pointing the finger at Syria and Iran. Libya, which may well have had some involvement, has always been regarded as a much weaker target and was, of course, less important during the Gulf War.
“So the trial [of two suspected Libyan intelligence agents] was certainly less than perfect in the sense that the investigation had fairly serious political interference and was remarkable for the flimsiness of the evidence used to find one of the Libyans guilty.”
Legal principles vital
But though he remains unsatisfied with the outcome of what was a criminal investigation and trial, Dix is convinced that the overriding legal principles behind the Lockerbie investigation should be applied to Sept. 11.
“At the same time, flawed as it was, I think what happened in the Lockerbie investigation can’t be a worse response than the response to Sept. 11. I do feel there’s been an awful rush into military action,” he said.
“What we could have done better after Lockerbie, and what we could have better done with now, is a serious, unimpeded investigation into who did these attacks and why, and who helped them.”
Does Dix feel that the retaliatory military action in Afghanistan can help the families of Sept. 11?
“No, I don’t think it helps them,” he said. “If there had been an immediate war with Syria, Iran and Libya in the name of my brother, I would have been horrified and I know a lot of other family members would have been horrified.
“We came to realize that our loved ones were allowed to die because of either a willful, or a criminally negligent failure of intelligence. And I’m not even talking about Pan Am’s culpability, and they were found, correctly, guilty of criminal negligence for their sham of a security operation.
“So, if there had been military action, we would have felt that it was an attempt to dupe us, especially when we found out how easy it would have been to stop the bombing.
“Lockerbie and the World Trade Center are not identical of course. Obviously there’s a huge difference of scale. Lockerbie was the biggest mass murder of people in British history but we’re talking 270 people. It’s horrible, it’s huge, but in scale it’s obviously much smaller than what happened on Sept. 11.”
Dix reflects a skepticism that is a hallmark of our times. He is suspicious of the motivations of governments, both those that were in place in 1988 and those who are directing the war in Afghanistan now.
“I think we have reason to wonder if there is an attempt being made to distract attention away from the very massive failure of intelligence on Sept. 11,” he said. “Osama bin Laden was probably the most watched man in the world. If these folks are not able to prevent an attack on the Pentagon, supposedly the most secure building in the world, is the answer to actually hand over more power to them and let them go do what they want to do now? I really don’t think so.”
In the face of such evil acts, can the passing of time bring about some semblance of a return to a normal life?
“Yes,” said Dix, “though at first it seems impossible. I divide my life into two sections. Life before Lockerbie and life after Lockerbie. It is the defining moment in my life and that’s true of every other member of my family. Yet I’ve managed to lead a rich and full life since Lockerbie. The loss of Peter was staggering, and keeps on happening in a sense. Peter never met my wife, nor my son. So every time I take steps in my own life, I am reminded that one of the people I would have most wanted to share them with is not here. And I think about it from the point of my nephew, who was 1 when his father was killed. He will go through his life without a father. The loss doesn’t go away in that sense.
“The one solace for the Sept. 11 families, at least for the Americans and green card holders, is the enormous outpouring of support. In that respect, I do feel a particular concern for the families of undocumented immigrants who died.
“And that’s an important consideration in another context. For every death in Afghanistan, there is no infrastructure to help people and we’re talking about a country with already one of the largest populations of orphans in the world.”
How does Dix feel the U.S. and the rest of the world should have responded to the Sept. 11 atrocities?
“We need to find out who all the guilty are, by means of an international criminal investigation, and if they are found guilty in a world court, I believe they should spend a long time in prison. I don’t believe in the death penalty; I feel despair when I hear the eye for an eye argument. This war could end up killing even more people than the Sept. 11 attacks. It’s a terrible response, worse than the ineffectual response after Lockerbie.”
Does he feel it is possible for some good to come out of such evil acts?
“No good comes from mass murder. No good has come from this so far and indeed many more bad things have come as a result. The good things that people point to, the outpouring of support, will never be enough to make up for the devastation.”