WASHINGTON ― The lawmakers on Capitol Hill opened their mouths and said the words again as they prepared to leave town for the weekend that would mark 15 years since terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center.
The words were some variety of “never forget.”
“This weekend America will remember not only the horror of those attacks, but also the heroism of our response,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday on the Senate floor, spilling a little bit of the glory on himself.
“It is impossible to forget the horrible events of that day, and the pain and grief and mourning that our country felt,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the No. 2 Republican in the Senate.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) also pledged to never forget in his part of a 10-minute remembrance ceremony on the steps of the Capitol on Friday.
He added the proviso that it was up to the people who lived through those grim days to ensure that kids who did not witness Sept. 11 appreciate what the sacrifices meant.
“Do they fully understand what happened that day? Will they ever? Can they?” said Ryan, who recalled how he couldn’t get a flight home and had to drive.
The words sound right. But forgive the people who actually responded to the nightmare of that clear, warm September morning if they don’t think the lawmakers understand, or don’t believe their pronouncements. Forgive them if they look askance at three men who ― just last year ― never used their power to ease the way for a new 9/11 health and compensation law, who never even signed on as sponsors of that legislation.
“These guys. That’s a typical politician bullshit line,” said Ray Pfeifer, a former New York City firefighter who counts himself lucky to be still battling cancers linked to Sept. 11. “They want to be patriots when it’s convenient for them.”
And when others are in need, it’s usually not convenient.
“They want to be patriots when it’s convenient for them.”
Pfeifer and dozens of other responders had to spend much of last year traveling to Washington to remind all those lawmakers who say “never forget” to pass a new law before the old one expired.
Pfeifer came with his wheelchair. Others toted oxygen tanks to aid their damaged lungs. Jon Stewart came twice, bringing cameras and a spotlight. Eventually, the bill passed on the last day of the legislative year, attached to a massive government funding bill.
Any of the leaders could have made it easy. They could have put the bill on their respective chambers’ floors the way they expedite so many other bills, the way McConnell put two anti-Obamacare votes on the Senate calendar on Thursday.
“The way they passed that bill was so ugly — the way it was put on at the last minute, at the last second,” Pfeifer said. “There was no reason why sick 9/11 guys should have been down there. It should have been a kumbaya moment, where we signed the bill and we all, as bipartisans, got on the Capitol steps and praised this thing. But they didn’t want to do that. That was wrong.”
Nine months after the bill’s passage, and with nothing at stake, Ryan held that kumbaya moment. And there’s a basic reason why someone like Pfeifer would not be impressed. For first responders, remembering 9/11 is not just about honoring that terrible day and their losses and sacrifices. It’s also about why they were willing to sacrifice in the first place, and why nearly all of them would do it again, regardless of the cost. It’s a day that shows in the clearest way what good people do when others are in desperate need: they act, especially if it’s their job.
But that’s not how Congress rolls.
And as responders like Pfeifer look at the country today, they see plenty of people who need help and need lawmakers to step in. They see the mosquito-borne Zika virus that causes terrible birth defects. They see the entire city of Flint, Michigan, poisoned by its own water system — and legislation to help those people going nowhere. They see a Senate that won’t vote on Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland because one party hopes its side will get to fill the vacant high court seat next year.
“It’s so wrong what they’re doing,” Pfeifer said of Garland, although his own views tilt conservative. “You could vote him down, you could do whatever you want to do, but how do you not vote? That’s another crime that’s going on in this country. It’s wrong.”
So when politicians say “never forget” this year — or tweet it on Sunday, as they all will surely do — the meaning of those words is somewhat different for people who still live the consequences of 9/11. There is no forgetting. For them, the words are a reminder of what Congress put them through, and continues to put others through.
When Pfeifer hears about Zika, about Flint, about a Supreme Court seat going empty for months on end, he hears the emptiness of the uttered words and knows the he and other responders are fortunate because Congress eventually acted in their case, even if it treated them with callous disregard along the way.
There is no assurance that Congress will do anything to redress the impacts of this year’s deadlocked Supreme Court verdicts, or be moved to help lead-poisoned children, or even feel especially responsible if more children are born with microcephaly because lawmakers were slow to respond.
“There’s so much stuff that you learn, and I get so upset now,” Pfeifer said. “This is stuff that’s right up front — they should just get it done.”
That’s what Pfeifer will never forget.