Fearless first stand against terror

By Carroll du Chateau

It is ironic that a man who argued for the right of citizens not to go to war should die fighting. But not so ironic, say his colleagues, family and friends, if you knew Alan Beaven.

Beaven's dissertation, which earned him an A on top of his LLB (hons), was dated February 1974 and written against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Titled "Conscientious objection to military service", it began with a quote from James K. Baxter:

When I was only semen in the gland
or less than that, my father hung
From a torture post at Mud Farm
Because he would not kill ...
I feared a death by cold in the
cold groin
And plotted revolution. His black
and swollen hands
Explained the brotherhood
of man ...

And it ended with this statement: "During war the state adopts its most totalitarian form. If, in winning the war it quashes the individual conscience of its citizens then it may be disputed whether it is a victory at all."

It was a considered, intelligent argument, written when New Zealand still practised compulsory military training and service. Only those who objected to going to war on religious or humanistic grounds (which plainly did not include Baxter's father, Archibald) were exempt.

Twenty-seven years later, after a stellar career as a criminal and environmental lawyer, two marriages, three children, a swing from Baptist to eastern spiritual beliefs, and a wanderlust that kept him roving the world despite a yearning to return to New Zealand one day, Beaven was still championing the same fundamental principles.

And although a gentle type, he had the build (1.9m and 93kg) and the courage to follow through. As his son John says, "The note Dad pinned at eye level in his New York office so he couldn't miss it read: 'Fear: Who cares?' "

It must have been frightful when, 50 minutes into that five-hour flight from New York to San Francisco, an Arabic voice came over the intercom to tell the 38 passengers they had a bomb on board and were returning to New York.

At the time Alan Beaven was on his way to finally sort out a case against a company polluting the American River in Sacramento.

He hadn't wanted to go. The night before, he and wife Kimi had celebrated their eighth wedding anniversary. They had almost finished a month-long training course at a New York ashram and within a couple of weeks were due in Mumbai for Beaven's year of voluntary work as general counsel of the SYDA Foundation, an organisation based on the practice of Siddah Yoga Meditation.

Beaven was committed to the job. Over nine years he and Joseph Tabacco jnr had fought Shell Oil and local authorities and cleaned up the fouled waterways of California. As Joe had said, when they sat down in the early summer of 2001 and discussed Beaven's application for another chunk of time away from the desk, "You know we've cleaned up all the streams, there are no more cases to bring ... we're running out of work."

But this re-hearing needed Beaven's negotiation skills. "I'll just go out there ... I know we'll get it settled."

Clean water was a birthright for Beaven who grew up in Otakau Rd, Milford in Auckland's glittering East Coast Bays. Born on October 15, 1952, he had the classic New Zealand childhood. The three brothers and little sister spent their time fishing and messing about on Dad's runabout. The boys, Colin, Ralph and Alan shared a room. "Three wardrobes, three chests of drawers, three beds," says Ralph, a property manager for Southpark Corporation, who lives in nearby Murrays Bay.

Their father was warehouse manager for L.D. Nathan, the boys went to Westlake Boys High School, played rugby and the fearless Alan surfed and did judo. Margaret went to Westlake Girls and was keen on tennis, "so we played quite a lot of that, too".

Then there was religion, lots of it at the Milford Baptist church in Dodson Ave, plus Sunday school, which left Alan at least, says his older brother, "searching for something else. He had very strong social instincts, wanted to represent the underdog."

Beaven waltzed through his LLB at Auckland University, manning the phones for Lifeline in his spare time, picking up the Butterworth Prize for law, and catching the eye of Bill Hodge, the constitutional law lecturer who supervised his dissertation.

"He was an extremely thoughtful, mature young fellow," says Hodge, an American familiar with the constitutional decisions of the US Supreme Court and aware of the extent to which conscientious objection had become a recognised legal doctrine.

"In those days you had to have an A average to get into honours. He was very intelligent, scholarly, and a gentle person."

By then Beaven was dating fellow student Elizabeth King. Their 1976 wedding photo in a family garden shows an impossibly young-looking Alan, in loud, plaid pants; Liz in a flowing gown. As she says now, "He was charismatic, adventurous, optimistic, engaging, outgoing. He always had a crowd around him."

The family shared the wanderlust. Colin (now 58), with his double degree and successful career in corporate law, joined Beaven and Liz in Britain. Margaret (51) married and moved to Florida, and their parents retired to the warmth of Surfers Paradise, where their father, Paul, lives still. As Ralph says, "Except for me, we're scattered all over the world."

Once in London, along with the travel, Beaven took his career seriously. "To pass four bar exams in four different jurisdictions you have to be serious," says Liz, now education administrator at the Waldorf (Steiner) School in Sacramento.

Beaven tackled his English bar exams, lectured at Kings College, then took chambers as a barrister. They lived an hour from his brother Colin, who says, "It was no secret in our family that Alan was certainly the most gifted."

Son John was born in 1980, Chris three years later, and Beaven's attention turned to New York.

He arrived in Manhattan in 1985 at 32, with a hard-won reputation. "We hired him because he had very good trial experience," says former colleague, Joe Tabacco. "He was very good on his feet, and New York seemed to like his accent, personality and sense of humour."

First he did criminal-defence work, some in Thailand, and became intensely interested in spirituality. The boys went to Rudolf Steiner schools. John, now 25, remembers that when his parents first split, he would accompany his father to early morning Sunday meditation. "I'd sit in his lap [as he sat cross-legged] and read a book. It lasted an hour. It was kind of time that was our time, special for me."

When Liz moved to California in 1992, Beaven convinced Tabacco to open a San Francisco office so he could be near his sons. The change of direction suited him. Within five years he had married Kimi, fathered Sonali and become one of California's leading environmental lawyers. His clothes were down-home Kiwi: one green suit, old khaki pants, an orange vest, and a "crazy", psychedelic baseball cap. "He'd get into the office early," says Tabacco "and by 4.30 he was out the door to spend time with Sonali.

"He was strong-willed without being inflexible ... took work seriously without being serious. He was extra efficient, could cajole people into giving him stuff, was a very, very good negotiator, too."

Beaven did not lead the regular life of highly paid San Francisco lawyers. Not for him the fancy restaurants, bars and clubs. Instead he lived across the bay in Oakland, worked on his spiritual life, played with his kids, lived frugally and saved his money. "And it's difficult to do that in San Francisco."

According to his brother Ralph, he worked in an unconventional way and never totally adopted modern technology. On the other hand, "he was determined, open about things and where he stood on them. Thoughtful."

For his children especially, he was a star. John remembers how he put family first. "We'd come down every other weekend. He was very playful. If we were out playing other kids would ask if they could join in."

He also taught them to be fearless, to let Sonali (now 9) climb a tree as high as she could, to trust.

"You'd never know he was a high-pressure lawyer," says John. "When baseball became my passion it became his passion too. I don't think he ever once said 'no' to 'let's go out and play ball'. We'd spend hours and hours."

Later, when John played for his University of California San Diego baseball team, Beaven wouldn't miss a game. He treated his kids as people. Immediately he started dating Kimi, who he had first met in India, he introduced her to his sons, and later asked John how he felt about their getting married. He was delighted.

"Kimi was and is absolutely incredible to myself and Chris - and to my mom ... Kimi is much more outgoing, Mom more conservative, they have a great relationship."

It was a trick of fate Beaven was on UA93. "I think he had a free ticket he hadn't used on United," says Tabacco. "He usually travelled Continental."

True to form, many of the important people in Alan Beaven's life were on the move when the plane smacked nose first into that empty paddock. Joe Tabacco was driving back from the East Coast. Son John was in Melbourne watching the tragedy unfold on TV. His brother Ralph was in Fiji.

And Alan, the youngest brother, the wise and caring father, the tennis player who whipped Tabacco every match, was fighting, not just for his own life, but for those of his family, friends and most of all his principles.

Details about the crash and Beaven's part in it, trickled out so slowly he never got the public recognition he deserved. There were no survivors. Since he didn't carry a cellphone, Beaven made no calls from the plane. He must have learned about the World Trade Centre crashes from his fellow passengers. Until 10 days ago the cockpit recorder tapes were for officials and family only, and Kimi was reluctant to talk about what she and the family had known since 2002.

But, as Beaven's younger son Chris wrote to Senator Dianne Feinstein, those tapes made it clear: Alan Beaven, with the three other six-footers on that flight, fought with all his energy to stop the terrorists completing their mission. "My father, Alan Beaven, was among those 33 [sic] passengers of United Airlines flight 93. Their hurried steps towards the cockpit were the first in an international campaign against fanatical hostility. For this they should be celebrated. At a private listening in Princeton, New Jersey, I twice heard [my dad's] accented words. His final phrase 'Turn up!' was shouted at 10:02:17.3 on the official cockpit recorder ... Authorities confirmed that DNA testing placed him in the cockpit at time of impact ... This evidence undoubtedly proves his centrality in the effort to regain custody of United's Flight 93. He led a group that led a nation that led an international campaign against the threat of fanatical hostility. My father is a hero."

Bill Hodge never forgot the bright young student. A year after the terrorist attacks he detoured to a desolate field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, where "you could still see a black streak where the plane had crashed and burned".

"Oh dear," he says, even now holding back emotion. "There was an informal memorial made of cyclone wire and people put things on the fence. And the most prominent thing was a big wreath made of some permanent material, with a big photo in the middle of Alan, from the Westlake Boys Old Boys.

"These were things dedicated to different people who all died at the same point. And the most single moving thing there was this bronzed wreath, this piece of New Zealand dedicated to Alan Beaven."

A movie about the hijack, United 93, opens in America this month.

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