First Responders: Our Ingratitude

Our collective ingratitude to the 9/11 first responders is a political and moral travesty.

Ingratitude is among the worst of human attributes. Religion teaches us that a person who is incapable of gratitude is a person who is overly selfish and self-absorbed. Gratitude nurtures compassion and humility. It is a fundamental religious value because it promotes an understanding of how small and vulnerable we human beings really are. None of us would be what we are without the support of many others. All of us at some point in our lives will need the assistance of many others simply to survive.

Gratitude is the state of mind that recognizes the good people do for us. It is the state of mind that wants to reciprocate a kindness shown to us. Some of these kindnesses are, perhaps, simply our responsibility, as, say, a doctor who successfully treats a patient. But even in this realm a grateful person lives his life in such a way as to acknowledge the unique contributions to our well being that, but for such action on the part of another, our lives would be worse. Of course, all the more so when someone benefits us having no special obligation to do so, but is motivated by that mysterious impulse that only humans have to serve someone else's interest when no benefit to us is apparent, except, perhaps, the good feeling that doing something good for another provides us.

We hardly think about first responders until we need them. These are the people who, whether it is their job or not, jump into the fray first. They face the threat when no one else is willing or able. Who thought of firefighters in New York before 9/11? Who thinks of firefighters today, 14 years later?

I still try to. Whenever I hear a siren or see firefighters on our streets my heart skips a beat and I remember the enormous heroism, courage and sacrifice these and other first responders performed on 9/11 and every other day. I still get emotional about it.

And so, it is painful to me, and frankly a national disgrace, that we so mistreat those 9/11 first responders. Hundreds of them rushed into the fray. They followed their human instinct that was stronger in them than in most others to save lives, and it cost many their own lives. Children lost parents. Partners lost their emotional and financial rock. And in the aftermath of 9/11, many more sifted through the rubble day after day on the toxic pile that the government assured us was safe to breathe, and became desperately ill.

It wasn't until 2011 that the "Zadroga Act" was passed, named in memory of the first of the first responders to die of 9/11 related illnesses, that offered temporary benefits to the families of the first responders. The Act has now expired. Time after time 9/11 first responders have had to go hat in hand and essentially beg Congress to make the compensation permanent, so that those who became ill would not have to worry about affording necessary medical treatment, and so that their survivors will be able to live in dignity.

Who could be against that? Who would be against that?

The opposition is always the same: It is too costly; yet another example of a government freebie. Some point to the potential of fraud; that many more people than were actually involved in 9/11 first responses might claim benefits. Still others argue that the first responders were only doing their job, as if it was their job to have the towers collapse on them, or to breathe in toxic air while everyone else stayed far away from ground zero.

This national ingratitude is a disgrace. Well known Jewish lore tells of one rabbinic master, who began his sermon with a thump on the table, crying: "It is enough that a human being is alive." And then he sat down.

It should be enough just to say that: There are people alive today because of those firefighters who rushed in to get as many souls out as possible. There are children who had parents in childhood; spouses who had a normal family life because of these first responders. Their health benefits are not a gift; it is not charity. It is our national responsibility. And to those who cannot embrace this responsibility; who think that it is just a free gift, perhaps they can find it in them to be generous with those who have done a good deed for us.

Of course it costs money. Everything costs money. What is the price of a human life? What is the price of lives that have been saved; children who otherwise would never have been born? What is the price of the happiness of having a partner who might otherwise have perished?

Those of us who lived through 9/11 in New York remember what it was like. For us, perhaps most symbolic of all, testifying to everything good about humanity, were our firefighters; the people we rarely think about unless we need them. On that day, when heaven was falling and the earth's foundations fled, they rushed up the stairs and on their shoulders held the sky suspended. They bore the desperate hopes and final confessions of so many human beings. The pillars of the earth held a while longer in deference to their valor. We may be stingy with them now, but many people are alive today because of the firefighters and other first responders of New York City.

One person later testified that as he walked down the World Trade Center with a 90 year-old man he was assisting, he passed thirty to fifty firefighters heading up the stairs. "I don't think any of them made it," he said. "It was like a ladder to heaven."

The Book of Genesis states: "And Jacob dreamt, and behold there was a ladder set on the ground and its top reached the sky and the angels of God were ascending and descending. God is in this place and that is the ladder to heaven."

We should demand of an ungrateful Congress: Do the right thing. In our name, do the right thing.