When Tragedy Strikes – Who Takes the Blame?

On Sept. 11, 2001, Virginia Buckingham, now Senior Director of U.S. Public Affairs for Pfizer, Inc., was serving as the CEO of Logan International Airport and was subsequently blamed for the attacks launched there. For the past sixteen years, Buckingham has worked to shed light on both the personal and broader implications of scapegoating in our culture and provide insights on building resilience. In her keynote at GovLoop’s Next Generation of Government Training Summit, Buckingham shared her emotional story about responsibility, resilience and rebuilding after a tragedy.

Tragedy Strikes

Buckingham never knew how the tragedy of 9/11 would change her life forever. “I thought I’d come to Washington, serve at a federal agency, work in the Whitehouse and run for governor someday,” Buckingham said. “That all changed Sept. 11, 2001.”

Six words altered Buckingham’s life, “Two planes are off the radar.”

We all remember where we were that fateful day. And while the majority of us are united by our stories in the days after the attacks, that was not the case for Buckingham. Only two days later, the first news stories about her being fired emerged.

One headline read, “Now we know the price of appointing unqualified leaders.” Another compared Buckingham to a salmon, “soon to be swept away with the disaster of 9/11 following her for the rest of her life.”

Society is always eager to blame someone for pain or tragedy. Even Eisenhower once said, “The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions.”

“Six weeks after 9/11, I was forced to resign,” Buckingham said. She then started work at the Boston Herald as an Editor. “I put my head down and worked as hard as I could.”

But several months into her new career, Buckingham received a phone call. “It was my lawyer saying I was being personally sued by a 9/11 family. It was a young widow with two young children. She blamed me for the death of her husband, who was on one of the planes and tried to fight the hijackers.”

Buckingham is a mother herself, whose son was just two years old at the time. “I wanted to say ‘I’m not a monster, I’m a mother just like you,’” she said.

Buckingham said, deep down, a little voice inside her knew the truth. There was nothing she could have done to stop the hijackings. But life is not easy after taking the fall for such a tragedy. “Why was I blamed?” she asked. “How could I move on? What purpose does a scapegoat serve? Is there a societal toll besides just personal?”

Ultimately, she realized that scapegoating is a way to deal with the pain life brings. “My story of being blamed and blaming myself is not so different from those of other leaders,” Buckingham said. And while leaders must be held accountable to some degree, it becomes unproductive when all people can focus on is finding a scapegoat. “Assigning blame is completely incompatible with leadership,” she added.

“Blame is a way to discharge pain and discomfort,” Bene Brown once said. Blaming allows us to avoid this simple truth: human beings are fragile. September 11 shifted something fundamental in the nation’s sense of safety. The burden had to fall on Buckingham’s shoulders.

The Road to Resilience

Learning to forgive herself and rebuild her life has been arduous for Buckingham, but also full of grace. She met with many other families affected by 9/11. After a meeting with one parent who lost her child, Buckingham realized, “I was no more to blame for the hijackings than her only daughter, Marian, who died on the hijacked planes. That mother asked me to live my life in her daughter’s name.”

Buckingham shared her road to resilience with us and the need to shift our perspective. Rather than thinking of resilience as always having to be stronger after hardship, she challenged us to acknowledge pain and brokenness after failure or tragedy.

“I was broken,” Buckingham said. “Not instantly, but over time. Like a bottle tossed in the sea, torn about bit by bit.”

But is that where the bottle’s story ends? Buckingham didn’t think so. “It takes many years for the seas to smooth jagged edges, making those broken edges beautiful. I was broken, changed forever, but still beautiful. I have not moved on, but forward. I am not stronger, but I am wiser.”

While the majority of headlines against Buckingham were harsh and untrue, she did admit that she continued to carry the tragedy of 9/11 with her. They simply won’t be the only memories she holds onto; many will still be joyful. “I will carry those images with me forever – the image of my newborn in my arms the first time and people jumping from the tower,” Buckingham said. “Or holding my husband’s hand while simultaneously remembering the woman mourning her lost husband.”

In life, there’s beauty and loss, pain and hope. But even if broken, these pieces gathered together can be as beautiful as sea glass. “As you lead in your own roles, I hope there’s a growing recognition of the destructiveness of blame and realization that it keeps us from solutions. With inevitable losses and setbacks, I hope you hold on to what you know is true.”

“I served in government for only a decade, but it shaped who I am, what I valued and what I believe,” Buckingham concluded. “And despite how my career ended, I believe government is still the most noble, essential endeavor.”

This blog post is a recap of a session that took place at the recent Next Generation of Government Summit. Want to see more great insights that came out of NextGen? Head here.

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richard regan

Lack of diversity and inclusion is the blame for 911. Low level intelligence experts knew as far back as the Clinton administration that terrorists had the capability to hijack airplanes as acts of terror. That advice was ignored by the leaders in the insular intelligence community that to this day do not take constructive feedback in a positive manner. Lesson learned-listen to the grassroots of the organization instead of the grasstops of an organization.

Gregory White

Great comment! I had not conceived of diversity and inclusion in such a manner. Thank you for broadening my perspective.