What would the victims of 9/11 want?

Posted: Mar 21, 2003 12:00 AM
More than 200,000 young Americans are now poised to risk their lives to defend this nation and to liberate the people of Iraq. With the mystery of human evil comes the moment of heroism, the one calling forth the other like a candle shining in the darkness.

Surely honoring that flame, that willingness to lay down one's life for others, is the least that the rest of us can do. But here in New York, I read with unfathomable sadness that the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., in charge of designing the parameters of a memorial to the victims of 9/11, has decided not to honor the policemen and firemen who gave their lives rushing to help the victims of the attack.

How can this be? What kind of twisted world do we live in, you ask? I do not know how to say this. But it appears to be the result of a campaign by spokesmen for families of the other victims of 9/11.

Stephen J. Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, told the media there should be "some designation for those people who died willingly, who risked their lives to save others." But several groups representing victims' families feel otherwise: Thomas Johnson lost a son, a financial analyst for Keefe, Bruyette and Woods, in the attack on the twin towers. He told the media he feels "very strongly that what is called for is one memorial."

"We believe each individual who lost their life on that tragic day should be treated with honor and extraordinary respect," agrees Edie Lutnick, executive director of the Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund.

And so they should. It was an extraordinary moment in American history and the outpouring of empathy and assistance by their fellow Americans is a tribute to our desire to share and if possible, ease their families' grief.

But, as gently as possible, here is my question: In what sense does honoring the sacrifice of our uniformed rescue workers dishonor your dead? If the beloved dead can see the living, do you imagine they would be proud of this portion of your efforts? If in those last terrible moments the doomed had any hope, it was because they believed they had not been abandoned. And they were not abandoned. Help was on the way and died rushing to save your family and friends. What kind of people do you think your lost loved ones were? Why would they not want to honor those who marched into a raging death trap in order to try to save them?

And then, of course, apart from the dead there are the living: thousands of survivors, at least some of whom have stories to tell today because men who are now dead came to their aid.

What do you say to those survivors: I am sorry, we do not feel like honoring your rescuers today?

I realize grief lasts long and disorders thoughts and emotions. But still I cannot think so badly of human nature as to believe that the official victim spokesmen truly speak for all families of victims.

The decision of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. is not yet final. Board members will vote next month on the guidelines, including the decision not to set aside even a small portion of sacred space for police, fire and rescue workers who died rushing into, not out of, the burning towers.

If you lost a loved one in 9/11 and want to honor those who died trying to save him or her, write to me. If you or a loved one was rescued on 9/11 by uniformed rescue workers, write to me. We need to broaden the voices in this debate before a terrible, short-sighted, grief-stricken ingratitude is memorialized forever in lower Manhattan.