Wounds of 9/11 Torn Open Again
Published on Tuesday, August 31, 2004 by the Toronto Star
Wounds of 9/11 Torn Open Again
by Rosie DiManno

Engine 54. Ladder 4. Battalion 9.

Perished: 15.

At this midtown fire station, no one needs rhetorical reminders of 9/11.

"Never missed a performance" is their slogan, drawing on the showbiz vernacular of the theatre district in which the firehouse is situated.

Those words are writ large on a gigantic mural outside the building, above the names of the 15 men who lost their lives on Sept. 11, when the north tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. Their twisted firetruck was among the last dug out of the rubble.

"We found them all together," one of their colleagues recalled yesterday, all sweaty and soot-stained from his crew's last call-out, on what has been a typically busy afternoon in midtown.

"I'm not over it. None of us will ever recover from it. That would be like asking a Vietnam vet to forget what he saw over there."

If anything, New York's firefighters would like to bury, somewhere deep and private, the awfulness of that day, almost precisely three years ago: The endless funerals, the empty cubicles, the eternal loss.

But those wounds are being torn open again — 9/11 as a lodestone for political currency — in the midst of the Republican convention.

References and evocations are thick on the ground, the centrality of Sept. 11 an overarching theme in promoting Bush's leadership.

Rudolph Giuliani, the iconic mayor who became the face of American resiliency in the days after the attack, delivered a speech here last night, tracing a direct line between the recoiling America of three years ago and what he argued was a surer, safer America today.

The attacks happened on Bush's watch. And nearing the third anniversary of that staggering crime, Republicans are trying to take ownership of 9/11, or at least ownership of the valor that emerged from it.

But not all are approving. Certainly some who experienced the disaster most intimately are responding without favor to what they see as exploitation. "I would definitely leave 9/11 out of politics," said the aforementioned firefighter. (Those who talked to the Star asked that their names not be used, because permission to speak with a reporter had not been obtained from their superiors.)

"Where were the politicians when decisions were being made about how much money New York should get for homeland security? Where was the mayor's appreciation for what we did, when he doesn't even see fit to negotiate with us for a new contract?"

He is referring not to Giuliani but his successor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the fact that firefighters have been without a contract for 2 1/2 years.

Beyond the labor dispute, however, some firefighters believe it is unseemly for Bush and the GOP to seize on what was a calamity for their city and their professional community.

"Bush says he did the right thing and, you know, I agree that he did, at first. He went after Afghanistan, and that was right, that was the main battle. But then he left that job half-done, because he got distracted by Saddam Hussein."

A colleague expresses a similar view. "Personally, I don't feel used by what they're doing. But I can understand why others would feel that way. Ask anybody in here and they'll tell you the same thing — none of us are the same people that we were before 9/11. Some can't bring themselves to even talk about it. Those men who died, they were our friends, our family. Now the politicians come along and ...

"Ah, forget it. I don't trust any politician any more, Republican or Democrat."

As he was speaking, a congressman from Pennsylvania was being taken on a tour of the station, a captain pointing out photographs of the 15 men who'd fallen in the line of duty. From behind a truck, another firefighter rolled his eyes.

Of course, it behooves the Republican party to remind the nation of how firm and forceful Bush stood in the aftermath of that tragedy, when this city and this country, indeed much of the world, was reeling from the terrorist attacks, the most audacious and murderous assault ever perpetrated on American soil.

"I can hear you," Bush told the rescue workers after he toured the smoldering moon-surface landscape where the mighty towers had reached towards the sky. "The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."

Within weeks, the United States was at the forefront of an international coalition attacking Afghanistan, routing the Taliban, in pursuit of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. But one war, widely backed by world leaders, segued into another war from which most traditional allies distanced themselves.

The American public is polarized over Iraq. It might very well be the deciding issue in the upcoming election, although Democratic challenger John Kerry is on shifting ground himself, tangled in nuances over an occupation that he either supports or condemns, depending on the day and who's asking — much to the dismay of a core liberal constituency.

For Bush, the situation is complicated for other reasons. Invasion was a cinch, regime change a stunning military success, but occupation and reconstruction — the entirety of the Iraqi campaign, this presumptive foothold for democracy in the region — remains a mess.

And American soldiers keep dying.

Still, the Bush camp is keen to promote their man as steadfast in his convictions, morally correct in the waging of a war — no matter how its justification has been retroactively altered — that they insist has made Americans, and the world, safer.

Bush has been president of a country at war for all but seven months of his first term.

Peace died in the ashes of the World Trade Center, too.

© 2004 Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited