It's too bad that one of Mayor Rudy Giuliani's final acts in office had to be the scolding of New York City's sorely needed and, as far as I'm concerned, forever-unimpeachable firefighters. If ever there were a time to look the other way, the recent confrontation between police and firefighters over a justifiable protest was it.
Yet more firefighters were arrested this week for their part in the Nov. 2 march to protest the mayor's decision to reduce the number of firefighters and other searchers at Ground Zero. Firefighters and police clashed, and a scuffle ensued.
Although most charges against firefighters have been reduced or dropped - and city officials Thursday vowed to halt further arrests - emotions continue to run high.
What's clear is that whatever caused the confrontation to escalate into a few incidents of fisticuffs wasn't cause for legal sanctions or the negative commentary that has ensued. It's hard to blame firefighters for their response to the mayor's decision, which officially was motivated by concern for the searchers' safety.
More wounding by far to the firefighters is the thought that the remains of some 250 of their brothers are buried in the debris and, given the construction-site mentality now taking over at Ground Zero, will end up carelessly discarded. Just last week, a hand reportedly was found in a Staten Island dumpster where WTC debris is being deposited. Fingerprinting revealed that the hand belonged to a young fire lieutenant from Manhattan Engine Company 4.
One needn't wander far into the unimaginable to reckon what else gets scooped and dumped as the city picks up the pace of the cleanup. Which is, of course, what worries firefighters.
It is sadly antithetical that we worship our heroes only when they're performing heroics, and turn our backs as soon as we've had enough. The devotion firefighters have toward one another is what makes them willing and able to fight nature's most vicious element. Without that kind of intense loyalty, they'd be unqualified for the job, yet we ask them to forsake it as our own emotional barometers dictate.
What we've asked is, frankly, un-American. In war, American soldiers don't leave their wounded or dead on the battlefield to be scavenged by animals, the enemy or mammoth machinery. This (ital) is (end ital) war. Ground Zero (ital) is (end ital) the home battlefield, and New York City's firefighters (ital) are (end ital) the soldiers.
In characteristically pre-Sept. 11 American fashion, we seem to want even this both ways. We want He-Men on Disaster Day (Sept. 11) and daisy-plucking poodle-walkers on Parade Day. I, for one, don't want to sensitize the boys downtown. I want them strong, tough and loyal, and that goes for the girls, too, if they wear the uniform. If they lose a little cool in the heat of human passion, especially if it's my brother's dust they're protecting, I'll take it as a tolerable trade-off for a fearless hold on the escape ladder.
Yet the official attitude seems to be that we've had enough of this smoldering mess. I'm not suggesting that Giuliani shares this view. Barring a criminal act, he, too, qualifies for unimpeachable status for his contagious strength and steadfast leadership.
We all know there's nothing left to recover from the heap of rubble that used to be our nation's monument to commerce and American chutzpah. We know that a hand here and foot there is the most we can hope for. But symbolically, we owe it to the brave souls who gave their lives - as well as to the survivors of lost loved ones - to treat the WTC site with respect.
How long is long enough to search and recover the scattered remains of thousands? As with the war against terrorism, as long as it takes.
(To make donations to the Widows & Children's Fund, send checks to: Widows & Children's Fund c/o Uniformed Firefighters Association, 204 East 23rd St., N.Y., N.Y. 10010, or call the UFA office at 212-683-4832.)