From Housewife to Outspoken "Jersey Girl"

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In the five years since Kristin Breitweiser watched her husband die in the World Trade Center on television, the onetime New Jersey housewife has transformed herself into a vocal political activist. In Wake-Up Call: The Political Education of a 9/11 Widow, a new book out this week, Breitweiser, 35, recounts her work to establish the 9/11 Commission, taking on Henry Kissinger and being serenaded by Bruce Springsteen. She recently spoke to TIME's Kathleen Kingsbury on why the U.S. isn't safer five years after September 11, 2001, what we should do about it and why Ann Coulter isn't helping.

TIME: You've recently moved to New York City. Are you worried about another terrorist attack there?

KB: I'm in New York City for my daughter's education. She has special needs, and requires special education and specialists. The city is the best place for those people and that's why I'm there. As soon as we no longer need the specialists, we'll be leaving.

TIME: Will you visit Ground Zero to memorialize your husband, Ron, on the fifth anniversary of his death?

KB: I typically just spend the 11th alone with my daughter, Caroline. We usually just go for a walk, either on the beach or in the woods, and take the dog for a swim. We really don't talk to anyone on the phone. We have a quiet day just for ourselves.

TIME: The terrorist attacks made you very afraid of flying. Did the news of planned terrorist plots earlier this summer exacerbate that fear?

KB: I only fly when I absolutely have to, and I don't enjoy it. I know how vulnerable our aviation system is, and what you have now is a game of catch-up. If we'd made aviation security a priority, we wouldn't be responding to things, we'd be prepared for them. But until we decide as a nation to care about homeland security and do that, we're always going to be reacting. That's not a good place to be.

TIME: So what you're saying is that homeland security is no better off than it was five years ago?

KB: Sure, we are a little bit safer. But, if you look across the board at how much could have been achieved and how much safer we could be at the present time, you would see that a lot of time has been squandered. That's shameful.

TIME: You are one of the 9/11 widows, nicknamed the "Jersey Girls," who strongly advocated for an independent investigation into what allowed the World Trade Center attacks to take place. Did the subsequent 9/11 commission and its report improve our national security?

KB: It's very frustrating. We fought very hard for the commission to learn lessons and fix the problems that occurred and hold people accountable so that going forward, lives would be saved when we were attacked again. Yes, its final report is not the most complete accounting, but there were some solid recommendations in there. For the most part, they've been ignored.

TIME: Such as?

KB: There's a whole laundry list. We have chemical plants dreadfully insecure. Our ports, our airlines, our aviation system as a whole is not as well protected as it could be. Securing our border. Securing loose nukes. Establishing alternative energy resources. Our consumption of oil is basically handing money to the terrorists. The American people need to be educated about these things, so they will start taking an interest, start to care. I don't see that happening.

TIME: In her own book Godless released in June, conservative commentator Ann Coulter calls you and your fellow Jersey Girls various names — "harpies," "witches" — saying some "9/11 victims turned themselves into the arbiters of what anyone could say about 9/11."

KB: I don't believe in name-calling and hysterics. This country is in a place right now where we need respectful educated debate versus screaming, ranting and raving. That's not fruitful. Tell me why the airline system shouldn't be secure. Tell me why port security shouldn't be better. Tell me why border security shouldn't be our first priority. Tell me why I shouldn't care that the FBI still has an inoperable computer system. If Ms. Coulter can give me an argument to dissuade me those things aren't of paramount importance, I'll listen.

TIME: Coulter went on to lambaste you for attracting media attention and "reveling in [your] status as celebrities."

KB: Regardless of who you are — whether you're a 9/11 family member, an Iraqi war veteran, whether you lost a child in a hot tub drain, whether your child was abducted — if you're an American citizen, you have every right to open your mouth and partake in democracy. I have every right to voice my opinion.

TIME: There are those whose opinion is we're already putting too many resources toward fighting terrorism.

KB: I'll respond the same way I do to the Department of Defense when they say we can't reform our intelligence system because we have to focus resources on the troops on the field in Iraq. The reality is that the terrorists are doing a hundred things at once. It's not too much to ask our elected officials to be intelligent about how we make our country safe. Whether that has to do with inner-city crime or that has to do with keeping terrorists from getting inside this country, the reality is that you need to multitask and be smart. It's not an unfair assumption to make that my elected officials should be able to do that. That's why they are there.

TIME: September 11th and preventing terrorism are often given as the principal reasons for the fighting in Iraq. Do you disagree with our presence there?

KB: I understand the pre-war doctrine. I don't necessary agree with it, but I understand the concept. But, when you go out on the offensive like that, I don't understand not having a defense. It's like having a soccer team with no fullbacks. You need to secure the homeland, particularly if you are going to go start wars in foreign countries. We have destabilized the world with our foreign policy in Iraq. I don't understand with the millions of dollars we've poured into Iraq and the state that it's in right now, why we couldn't have earmarked some of that money for our homeland security apparatus.

TIME: In your book, you are highly critical of Vice President Dick Cheney. Why?

KB: The reason why I take issue with Cheney is that when we were fighting for the commission, whether it was more funding, better access to documents, many times the Vice President was behind the scenes, thwarting those efforts. My problem is why he would have been against transparency and accountability.

TIME: Is that why — although you once considered yourself a Republican — you stumped for John Kerry's presidential campaign in 2004?

KB: I've made statements that are equally critical of both parties. The way I feel is based on the factual history. It's a fact that the House Republicans and the Republican Administration were our largest stumbling blocks. I take issue with that we have elected officials in Washington, either Democrat or Republican, that think homeland security or national security is ad hoc. Everyone has to be an American first. Everyone has to support national security. If that means hurting cranberry pickers in Washington State or automakers in Detroit or constituents in Arizona, you don't get to pick and choose when it comes to keeping us safe from terrorists. The political system in Washington has made it impossible for our elected officials to serve the people. They're not looking out for our interest. They're looking out for their own interest.

TIME: You're an admirer of John McCain. In 2008, will you switch parties again to support his presidential campaign?

KB: I have worked with Senator McCain on a couple of issues, and I like him an awful lot. I don't know if he's running in 2008, but I like him because he has the ability to get things done. I don't consider myself a Democrat. My leanings are with people who have integrity and purity, people you can trust. I don't care what label you have attached to your name, I care about is having leaders that are good people, intelligent people who are going to fix the many, many serious problems we are facing in the world.

TIME: You've been mentioned as a possible political candidate yourself. Is running for office something you've considered?

KB: I don't want to become part of the problem. It's much better to work outside the system where honesty and accountability can be all that matters. Once you go inside that system, in most cases, you become compromised.

TIME: So there's no integrity in D.C.?

KB: That's not what I'm saying. But, for the most part, we do need more transparency and sunlight. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and when it comes to the 9/11 attacks and our nation's failure to protect ourselves from the terrorists that day, we need to learn from those failures to make sure they never happen again. What's the point in shrouding everything in secrecy? At the end of the day, you learn it has mostly to do with embarrassment. When it comes to saving lives, there's no room for embarrassment.