Several months after Sept. 11, 2001, I recall vividly walking into a grammar school on Staten Island to attend a ceremony. At that time, our nation stood solidly united to support the ideals and principles that terrorists sought to destroy with several airplanes. The terrorists failed. But their failure to destroy does not mean that a price was not paid or that a sacrifice was not made.
The ultimate sacrifice was the slaughter of nearly 3,000 people. There have been numerous other sacrifices made — try travelling by airplane without additional burdens. Another sacrifice that was appreciated more fully involved the valiant and voluntary efforts of thousands who tried to rescue and recover victims at fire that raged at Ground Zero. We respected and appreciated this so much at the time that Cardinal Edward Egan, the Catholic Archbishop of New York, while celebrating a Mass to honor the first responders who volunteered to the attack, referred to the site as “Ground Hero.”
The thousands of volunteers came in many forms. One, a friend of mine since childhood, set out to find his brother and his cousin — both firefighters; both of whom, he would not find. When I first saw him at Ground Zero immediately after the attacks, he said, “We’re digging for Michael.” They never found him. He represented the many thousands of first responders who spent countless days “digging” for their brothers, friends and fellow human beings.
There were others: carpenters, iron workers, laborers — the hard hats. These thousands from all walks of life and from every state in the Union were our best of patriots. At the time, they did not ask for anything. But, now, we owe them.
The citizens of the United States of America came together. In every village, town, city, state as well as other nations, individuals felt as though we were all New Yorkers. We were one. We all paid a price. We shared the sacrifice.
Some schoolchildren and their teachers from Mississippi wanted to express their compassion and support to the many victims. So, they made a quilt. That’s why I was at the school for the ceremony. It was precious.
I was joined by a firefighter, who was representing the New York City’s fire department. He had been at Ground Zero for months to assist in the rescue and recovery effort. He was young. He looked tired. I asked how he was doing. He said “not bad.” However, that morning he had been spitting up blood into his bathroom sink! Not bad?
What caused it, I asked. He said the doctors told him he had swallowed too much of the toxic dust — a pulverized mix of, well, everything — that hovered over Ground Zero for months. Particles in the pulverized mixture tore his esophagus, thus causing almost constant internal bleeding. Not bad?
Over time, these best of patriots soon developed among them some common illnesses, ailments, symptoms, Some strange tumors, diseases and an unusual number of cancers began to appear, not to mention pulmonary, cardiac and psychological breakdowns. We owe it to these patriots to do something. They helped us, now we should help them.
Many have used the attacks of 9-11 to do many things: new security measures, new laws that bump up against our civil liberties, new excuses to do almost anything in the name of protecting us and waging war.
What comes to mind, here, is the story of Peter, who denied Christ. John records: “The servants and officials stood around the fire . . . Peter also was standing with them.. . . He was asked, ‘You are not one of his disciples, are you?’ He denied it, saying, ‘I am not’ ” Earlier that day, Peter had drawn his sword to defend his Savior; now he was denying him. As a nation, we stood around the fire at Ground Zero and drew our sword against the terrorist, but now when asked to support the victims, we deny them.
After all, it was an attack on the United States. The battlefields happened to be in New York, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon. The victims — both dead and alive — were victims of war.
In the House of Representatives, I joined my colleagues to establish a national response to this national tragedy. While there were and still remain many champions, I would like to point out two, in particular. Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y,) and Peter King (R-N.Y.) They were there at the beginning and have been there every step of the way.
There were countless congressional hearings, scientific studies, televised events, real-life tragedies to highlight the need for an appropriate response. The evidence is compelling.
Throughout these many years, there have been some who have opposed these efforts. Granted there are many priorities in our great nation, but is there one more worthy than this?
Opponents have objected for different reasons. Some do so out of ignorance. Some do not care. Some question the science. Some question the tragedies. Some hope it will go away. Some think it is New York’s problem, or not theirs. Some say we need more time to “study” the problem — this September will mark the 10th anniversary of the attacks. How much more time do we need? Some question the cost.
To many of these opponents, I would respectfully suggest they get informed and get a conscience.
As to the cost, I am all ears. Like many who question the cost, I believe we should always spend taxpayer money wisely. However, those who have opposed the current effort have not offered any reasonable alternative. So, in short, if you do not like this approach solely because of the cost, I ask: What is your plan?
Throughout history, wars have taken many different forms and have claimed many different victims. The nation that cares for its victims is a nation that is just.
In ancient Greece, the first cradle of democracy, the Athenian general and leader Pericles spoke at the funerals of soldiers killed in the first year of the Peloponnesian War. He sought to extol the glory that is Greece. He spoke of the valiant and noble sacrifice of the soldiers who perished and to the shared sacrifice of the families and city left behind. At the conclusion of his address, he said:
“Our departed friends have by facts already been honored. Their children from this day till they arrive at manhood shall be educated at the public expense of the state hath appointed so beneficial a meed [recompense] for these and all future relics of the public contests. For wherever the greatest rewards are proposed for virtue, there the best of patriots are ever to be found. Now let everyone respectively indulge in becoming grief for his departed friends, and then retire.”
Ancient Greece glorified its heroes, Will the United States continue to honor hers?