August 15, 2002
Bennett's kin decry Bush's lack of response
President didn't contact Mideast victims' families
By JOE CANTLUPE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – The family of Marla Bennett, a San Diego
woman killed last month in a bomb attack on Israel's Hebrew
University, has lambasted President Bush and the State
Department over the way the "sensitive matter" was handled.
Grieving family members criticized Bush for not sending
personal condolences – not writing, not calling – since Bennett's
death July 31. A younger cousin of the 24-year-old Bennett also
has sent a letter to the White House to exhort Bush to "do the
right thing," said family spokesman Norman Greene.
Greene said family members also complained about the failure of
the State Department to notify them after determining Bennett
was dead. The Del Cerro family initially learned of Bennett's
death from friends and Israeli officials hours after the Jerusalem
bombing that killed seven, including four other Americans,
"Family members just thought it was insensitive that there was
no call from the president or the State Department since then,"
said Greene, publisher of the San Diego Jewish Heritage newspaper.
"If someone wins at a sporting event, the president gives a call.
Here five American students were killed and there was total
silence. And the State Department was cold and
Yesterday, the White House reacted to the criticism by
expressing regret over the deaths. Officials said Bush had
expressed his sorrow and anger in public comments after the
attacks, but they gave no suggestion he would send personal
condolences to the Bennetts or any of the other victims' families.
"We have to take a look at precedent," said White House chief of
staff Andrew H. Card. "And the president, you know, he made a
statement as soon as the word came in about that bombing. And
this president has a huge heart; he cares deeply about
"There is not a doubt in my mind that everyone in America
understands that the president aches when an American life is
lost," said Card, who described Bush as a "people president."
The State Department declined to comment. After fielding
complaints from Bennett associates days after the attacks, State
Department officials told one of them that the proper protocol
Bennett's cousin, Stephen, 22, took his complaint further by
writing a letter to Bush. After Bennett's funeral in San Diego, the
young cook returned to his Charleston, S.C., home and wrote a
two-page letter to the president, urging the commander in chief
to send personal condolences to the family.
"I don't understand why you can call the quarterback for the
winning Super Bowl team and you called Lance Armstrong when
he won the Tour de France, but you don't have the time to send
your sympathies to the five American families affected by this
personal and political tragedy," Stephen Bennett said.
Relatives of other victims also were upset that they did not
receive personal condolences from the White House, The
Washington Post reported yesterday.
During her two-year stay in Israel, Marla Bennett called her
parents in San Diego within 15 minutes of a terrorist attack to
report that she was fine, Greene said.
This time there was no call.
When the State Department did contact the Bennetts, it was to
ask them for dental records, but officials would not confirm that
Marla Bennett was dead.
Eight hours later, Greene said he was notified by a friend – a
former Israeli diplomat – that Bennett was one of the victims.
Early the next morning, a U.S. Embassy representative in Tel
Aviv called Greene, asking, he said, " 'What does the family want
done with the body?' It was that blunt.
"I told her, 'Is this the way the U.S. informs a grieving family?' "
The official wrongly assumed the family was told already by the
State Department that Bennett was dead, Greene said.
San Diego-area lawmakers Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, and
Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego, have supported the Bennetts'
efforts, Greene said.
Hunter discussed the matter with the State Department, said a
spokesman for the congressman. He would not elaborate.
A spokesman for Davis described the family complaint as a
"private matter" and declined to discuss it with a reporter.
San Diego businessman Charles Wax – whose late father, Morris,
was a personal friend of Secretary of State Colin Powell's – said
he related his concerns to Powell's wife, Alma. She referred Wax
to other State Department officials, who, Wax said, expressed
their sympathy but had not called as of yesterday.