For one generation of us, comedian Jon Stewart was a staple of our formative MTV years. For another, it is his time siting the seat of The Daily Show on Comedy Central with his often blistering and hysterically funny take on the nation’s headlines. But for a 9/11 generation of NYC first responders Jon Stewart is the roaring voice of accountability, which was on full display this week at the House Judiciary Committee.
Ignoring the usual protocol of reading from a prepared statement when called to testify before Congress, Stewart raised his voice and ire in a scalding fashion that was in many ways unprecedented and unimaginable. It’s usually the other way around, with members of Congress sitting on a dais and scalding witnesses while playing for the TV cameras and catering to the cable news shows, which often egg on that ratings-fueled behavior.
But Stewart was no ordinary witness and this was no ordinary hearing. With an ensemble of New York’s finest, bravest, boldest and most courageous filling the gallery seats behind him, Stewart had the backup team that honestly is more impressive than any assembly of Marvel’s Avengers. These were the men and women of the FDNY, NYPD, Port Authority and several other public safety members who not only responded to the 9/11 attacks in the moments after the murderous assaults occurred but stayed for days, weeks and months to retrieve their brothers and sisters in arms and all of the victims of that tragic day.
As the ruins of the World Trade Center burned for months and the retrieval of remains continued in a 24-7 manner, all of them exposed themselves to any number of hazards including ingesting toxins and other physical harm. Utilizing every possible means of personal protective equipment to safeguard themselves, they still worked in what was, for lack of a better description, an open crematory from hell.
While their public safety oaths certainly pledge them to serve in ways that could incur tremendous costs – including the loss of their lives – there is no doubt in this era of American history that all of these public servants distinguished themselves far and above the call of duty. But today it is the costs of that duty of public service that are coming due.
Since the 9/11 attacks, hundreds more first responders have died as a result of their service on the day of infamy. Thousands more have had to retire – often on disability from their public safety jobs because they can no longer perform their duties because of respiratory illnesses, cancers and other 9/11 exposure illnesses. Of these thousands of additional 9/11 victims, many of them are having their lives shortened, if not ruined, all for doing their jobs and running into hell to serve others, while the rest of us ran away as fast and far as we could.
In those days, weeks and months after 9/11, you could not go anywhere without seeing the phrase ‘Never Forget.” It was on T-shirts, car magnets, flags, billboards – you name it. That phrase was everywhere! But ‘Never Forget’ has now become ‘Never Mind’ as the fund to provide compensation to these public servants – the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund – is running out of money and is set to expire without reauthorization and additional appropriations.
It seems more than unfortunate that once again we find a Congress as well as an administration indifferent or just completely ineffectual at serving the people they have sworn to serve and secure us.
For example, in the past few weeks we’ve had a small handful of House members hold up a disaster assistance bill, as well as reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program, because of their passionate concern over federal spending. Their concern is actually hysterical given their enthusiastic endorsements of tax reform and spending packages that have only added to our national debt and don’t curb any sense of federal spending. These are monies to make communities of all types whole again, and it’s become a political bargaining chip.
You can then add to this list of lack of public service the grotesque treatment of federal employees, and in particular the U.S. Coast Guard who had to work WITHOUT PAY while putting themselves in harm’s way to secure our homeland. While they were doing their duties, epic levels of kindergarten name-calling between both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue took priority over compromises and commitment to the real public servants.
And then add to the growing list of awful care from Washington the still-dreadful healthcare service our veterans continue to get for putting their lives and limbs in harm’s way to fight our conflicts. The suicide rates among this class of patriots are horrifying. Let’s face facts and just admit as a nation we have failed to fulfill Abraham Lincoln’s charge “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan…”
Now I don’t believe for an instant that the administration and Congress are ignorant of these challenges, but their actions increasingly declare their growing indifference to being reliable partners to people who literally serve us with all risks and at all costs. This growing pattern of “Never Mind” while declaring “Never Forget” is a charade that has to end. Delivering empty promises of “never forgetting” and not being there for the long haul is probably the greatest insult to public servants and in particular those in public safety.
Which is why I often think we don’t deserve the blessings of these selfless public servants. Regardless of the time, day, place, risk or condition, any one of them would be there to answer the call for help from whoever issued it. I just wish we had the same steadfast character, leadership, commitment and response to do the same for them, because an attitude of “never mind” is truly awful and that’s behavior that is increasingly becoming more predictable. That by any measure is unacceptable.