Jim Cain didn’t feel any sense of urgency when he noticed his daughter had texted him on the morning of March 22, 2016. Nor did her immediate follow-up phone call cause concern.
The former U.S. ambassador to Denmark was talking to a friend while waiting at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. He had scheduled an early flight to New York. Neither the text nor the call interrupted the conversation.
Once Cain had a chance to read the text, he still didn’t grasp the significance. Cameron Cain had written that Alex, her boyfriend of four and one-half years, “was on the flight in Brussels.”
Not too long after reading that message, Cain started to piece together the facts that led to the story he recounted Friday in Raleigh. That story, told for the first time on U.S. soil and only the second time ever, led off a panel discussion on “Terrorism and Security” during the John William Pope Foundation and Jesse Helms Center’s one-day conference on “Foreign Policy and Trade Challenges in the Age of Trump.”
It’s a story of fear, uncertainty, a bittersweet secret revealed, and dysfunctional government. But it’s also a story of resolution in the face of anguish. It’s a story that stands today with a legal fight against one of the world’s largest social-media companies. It’s a story that features a plea for the Western world to get serious about terrorist threats and for the United States government to support victims of terrorism — wherever they might be.
There were no murmurs or side conversations in the room as Cain detailed the steps that helped him discover that Alexander Pinczowski and his sister Sascha were standing in line at a Delta Airlines ticket counter in Brussels the day that terrorists affiliated with ISIS bombed the airport. Attacks on the airport and a metro station killed 32 people and injured hundreds.
Cain made one more significant discovery. As he and his wife and daughter searched frantically for information about Alex and Sascha, “Cameron pulls her mother and me close on the sofa, and she says, ‘I’ve got something to tell you, Mom and Dad.’ We said, ‘What’s that?’ She said, ‘A year-and-a-half ago, Alex and I were secretly married in New York.’”
The search for a missing boyfriend had turned into the search for a missing son-in-law and husband.
And the search wasn’t easy. The Cain family flew to Brussels and spent a day-and-a-half searching local hospitals for Alex and Sascha. “Words don’t describe adequately how horrible an experience that was,” Cain recalled. As 20 families from 17 different countries using at least a dozen languages huddled in the “horrible hot” basement of a military hospital, Cain noted “an abysmal lack of what you might call customer service.” There was no counseling. No therapy. No support.
At one point, a nurse told Cain’s wife that four victims in the hospital remained unidentified, but the special prosecutor handling the case would not allow any family members to see them. Eventually, the hospital produced a list of living victims and told the families they could presume that anyone not named on the list was dead. “It was that … compassionate.”
Cain learned later that Alex and Sascha were killed in the first bomb blast. “Their identities were known to the first responders within an hour or two of the blast,” he said. “So before we ever even left New York to fly to Brussels, the first responders knew that they had been killed, but the bureaucracy of Belgium didn’t allow them to tell anybody.”
The search for “purpose and meaning” in the aftermath of these events drove Cain toward several messages for American officials. The first involved the fight against terrorists. “In this fight against ISIS, against terror, the world has to get serious about it and America has to lead.”
The Brussels bombers were part of an ISIS cell that had attacked Paris in November 2015. “We knew who they were,” Cain said. “We knew where they were. The Turks knew where they were. The Israelis knew where they were. We had shared that information with the Belgian authorities. Belgium ignored it.”
In addition to American leadership in a more serious Western approach toward terrorism, Cain offers a second point. “To fight this threat effectively, we have to disable the social media network that’s built and owned by America that these terrorists operate on.”
That’s what prompted Cameron Cain in January to serve as lead plaintiff in Cain v. Twitter. “We know that the terror plots in Paris and Brussels, including those that killed Alex and Sascha, were planned and plotted and funded and recruited and carried out by ISIS exclusively using Twitter,” Jim Cain said. He contends that Twitter hosted 40,000 active ISIS-related sites in 2016.
The suit intends “to shut down this terrorist platform that gives ISIS and its henchmen a way to plot, plan, and execute their global strategy,” Jim Cain told the Raleigh audience.
The former ambassador offers one final lesson from his family’s recent ordeal. “America needs to support its victims of terrorism wherever they are,” he said. As Cameron Cain visited her husband in a Brussels morgue on March 25, 2016, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was “laying flowers at the airport about a mile away,” Jim Cain said. “Our daughter never heard from John Kerry. She never heard from anybody with the administration or the State Department. There’s no program in America to support American victims of foreign — or, really, domestic — terrorism.”
A revival of the U.S. support program instituted after 9/11, or a new program modeled on one used worldwide today for British terrorism victims, could provide comfort to Americans who have suffered devastating losses.
Cain will never interact with Alexander Pinczowski as his son-in-law. He hopes his family’s experience can lead to changes that make similar stories less likely in the future.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.