Although Americans will forever recall September 11 with dismay, anger, and sorrow, October 7 is the date fear hit home for David Pitchford. His only daughter, Katie Lee, turned four years old that day, and Pitchford, his wife, and several friends were celebrating at their home in Stuart. At noon, the United States commenced bombing in Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden responded via a prerecorded statement broadcast on Al-Jazeera, a Qatar-based satellite news station.
"Bin Laden said -- and I'm paraphrasing here -- that the attacks to come will dwarf what happened on September 11 and that harm will come to every man, woman, and child in America," Pitchford recalls. "I thought, I'm gonna do something. I don't know what, but I'm going to do something. I'm not going to give up my country for my little girl. She's going to have a safe country."
During the party, Pitchford, who lives not far from the Martin County Airport, heard what he believed to be a crop duster in the air. "It scared the hell out of me," he says, then pauses and considers the fact that his words will be published. "I can't imagine bin Laden sending someone over here to get in an airplane to come and see me, but I don't think I'd like it written that we're in the proximity of an airport."
The events of that day put Pitchford over the top. Several days later he called his close friend, David Bruner, and proposed suing bin Laden in civil court for $1.1 trillion. Bruner took quickly to the idea.
The complaint, which Bruner and Pitchford filed October 15 in federal court in West Palm Beach, accuses bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri of murdering more than 5000 people in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks and of attempting to steal a crop-dusting plane from the Belle Glade Municipal Airport, about 30 miles southwest of Stuart. The six-page document asserts that the October 7 threat rekindled childhood Cold War fears when, as boys, Pitchford and Bruner were taught to "duck and cover" to survive nuclear attack. Out of fear, Pitchford says, he has constructed a shelter to protect his daughter from chemical attack, and Bruner claims he has refortified a bomb shelter built by his father. The suit asks for $100 billion in compensatory damages and $1 trillion in punitive damages.
A similar suit was filed October 11 in federal court in Manhattan by the widow of a man who died in the World Trade Center attack. The unnamed woman sued bin Laden, Afghanistan, and the Taliban. Such suits are permissible under a law passed by Congress in 1996 that allows victims of terrorism to sue countries that sponsor terrorists; since then, some plaintiffs have been awarded judgments against Iran and Libya. So far, collecting the damages from those countries has proven nearly impossible.
Seated beneath a carport at Pitchford's home, he and Bruner are clearly uneasy about discussing their lawsuit. The modest house is among a couple of dozen on a horseshoe street in a working class neighborhood. It is an overcast, rainy day, and an American flag flutters atop a pole in his front yard -- a sight not unique in this Martin County town of 14,000. Both agree they wouldn't want to live in the "rat race" that Florida morphs into south of town.
Sporting a blue polo shirt, shorts, and sockless loafers, Pitchford is round-faced, with soft, sensitive brown eyes and salt-and-pepper hair. He usually pauses before answering, sometimes casting a look toward Bruner in anticipation of a nod that a reply should be given. Bruner, with a slightly graying mustache and soul patch, is the quieter of the two 47-year-old men. At 6-foot-4, his head nears the top of the carport when he stands, but his low-slung chair drops him level with Pitchford, who, a few feet away, leans forward on a chair.
The two share the nebulous fear felt by many Americans in the wake of anthrax infections and warnings of more terrorist acts to come. That feeling is compounded by their lawsuit, which they contend is neither a symbolic gesture nor a greedy grab for cash. On a purely rational level, they know that Osama and friends likely don't have time to seek out and harm them. But rationality for many Americans was turned on its head September 11, along with a sense of proportion and possibility. So, yes, Pitchford admits, he feels fear. "I'd be lying to you if I said I didn't," he says. "It's something that defies logic, of course: Why do anything that could perhaps bring harm to your family? I have a very strong belief in God, so it's something I'm comfortable with doing. I just can't sit back, and I believe David can't either."
Asked why they filed the suit together, they glance at each other conspiratorially, Bruner softly chuckling. "Well, we kind of think alike," Pitchford explains. "We've been threatened in the same fashion. We both have families, and we want to make a stand." Pitchford is evasive about how the two men met, his background, and where these two nonlawyers learned enough about the law to compose their own legal documents. "I don't think that's germane," Pitchford says, his stock response to questions about the duo's personal lives. (Later, Pitchford mentions that he's a native Virginian and that his father was a judge who practiced law for 50 years. Bruner, a boat captain who is married with two sons ages 17 and 21, is a lifelong Stuartian.)
The two men look at each other warily when asked for a tour of the fallout shelter. "We don't want to get into a lot of detail in regard to that," Pitchford counters. "Let's put it this way: The fear is there enough that we've made arrangements in the event anything happens here." Again, he hesitates as a broader reality settles in. "Probably wouldn't even help with the types of attacks we're seeing."
Press accounts briefly noted the suit when it was filed, and friends and neighbors of the two men reacted positively to the news -- except for one fellow who chided Bruner, "You're going to bring anthrax down on all of Stuart." There's even been some neighborly ribbing. Recently, Pitchford noticed his neighbor preparing a large plywood sign. When Pitchford asked its purpose, the neighbor joked, "I'm going to put it in your yard to point out who sued bin Laden. That red paint over there is for a bull's-eye."
The men intend to broaden the complaint into a class-action suit, but that's the least difficult of tasks at this stage. A dicier prospect is serving the suit on bin Laden in his Afghan cave. Bruner and Pitchford have a plan, but not surprisingly, they're tight-lipped. "We have a means by which we're going to get service on him," Pitchford promises. "It's not going to get served on him directly, but there is means to obtain good service. I don't want it printed. I don't want to tip my hand and have them defend against it."
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.