In the winter of 2001-2002, I spent hundreds of hours reading transcripts and reviewing video clips of the men and women who raced towards the sounds of the sirens on September 11, 2001. The International Association of Machinists had sent three film crews to New York City and recorded over 100 hours of interviews for a 55-minute documentary that was called Everyday Heroes: Our Stories of 9/11. I was tasked as the executive producer.
Tears rolled down my cheeks as these union members told for the first time what happened on that terrible day, and what they experienced at Ground Zero in the ensuing weeks. They never bragged; never dwelt on the horrors they saw; and never told their spouse, friends or families what it meant to them. The video captured their patriotism and their pride.
Several of the workers spoke about the smoke and dust they encountered as they dug for survivors and then to recover bodies. One of them described how most of the guys he worked with on the pile had developed a hacking cough; he called it the "Trade Center Cough." Another described the witch's brew of chemicals that rescuers encountered. It was the first inkling any of us had of how their heroism would impact their health.
After checking with doctors at Mount Sinai Occupational Health Center, the Machinists Union decided that all proceeds from the sale of Everyday Heroes would be used for the treatment of the men and women involved in the rescue, recovery and rebuilding efforts at Ground Zero. We also made a modest contribution to Mount Sinai. It was but a drop in the bucket. We could not know then what we know now. The costs of their treatment would run into the tens of billions of dollars.
Now fast forward to July 29, 2010. The House of Representatives is voting on a measure to provide $7.5 billion in aid to those sickened in those rescue and recovery efforts. The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act was going down to defeat because Republicans opposed giving free health care to the heroes who had risked their heath. The bill was going down to defeat on a procedural motion that meant the opponents could vote "YES" and still kill the bill.
One Democrat said what had to be said. "You vote 'YES" if you believe yes," argued Congressman Anthony Weiner. "If you believe it's wrong, then you vote 'NO'." Weiner's rant was captured, put on YouTube and viewed over 990,000 times.
Far more people watched that clip than ever saw Everyday Heroes: Our Stories of 9/11. But both videos captured a kind of courage that makes this nation so unique. Not everyone ran to the sounds of those sirens. In fact, most New Yorkers streamed in the opposite direction. Not every elected official shouts down his colleagues. In fact, most prefer comity over confrontation. But we need -- and should respect -- those who do.
Today, as Representative Wiener fights for his political survival, it is important to pause and reflect on what it takes to be courageous in this country. We all are flawed; we all do stupid, hurtful things; we all seek forgiveness and try to make amends; and we all, eventually, go on to meet our Maker. But where, in Hell or Heaven, is it written that we are all so perfect that we can damn a man (or a woman) for being an idiot, a jerk or a twit?
I have never met Anthony Wiener. And in no way is he the equal of the men and women who sacrificed so much in the weeks, months and years following the terrorist attacks. But if he's still willing to stand up and fight for what he believes in -- like he did for those union men and women who absorbed the toxins at Ground Zero -- then I will stand with him.
I believe he deserves a second chance. And don't we all?