Remembering the 9/11 Story Beyond the Zadroga Bill

As our nation and the world wrestle with how acts of terrorism are insidiously impacting our way of life and grapple with how to shape the contours of a meaningful and appropriate response to such acts, two recent events occurred which have the capacity to offer our nation solace and hope.

One was the re-authorization of the James Zadroga Act, which provides aid to 9/11 responders through a victim's compensation program and through the WTC Health Program. This achievement, which was by no means guaranteed, came about only after months of harsh criticism, political maneuvering, turning a blind eye, and lack of leadership from some lawmakers who seemed completely disconnected from the real impact that the horrific tragedy had on the responders and their families. Fortunately, the tide turned and now the 9/11 responder community may rest assured that, despite their mental and physical suffering, they will be taken care of throughout their lifetime.

Certainly caring for those who, on 9/11 and the months following, rescued, recovered and rebuilt our city is an integral and essential part of our struggle to come to terms with the deadliest attack on our homeland in modern times. It is, without a doubt, the right thing to do, and Congress should be commended for its action. However, it is wrong to think that this act brings to a close our nation's internal response to 9/11. There is another vital dimension of this chapter, which can aid us in chiseling away at a more profound response to terrorism.

Since 9/11, I have immersed myself in caring for the responders as Director of the WTC Health Program at Stony Brook Medicine in New York. I carry with me the fragments of many tragedies that came out of that fateful time --the unfinished lives, the broken families, the failed marriages, and the secondary impact on the children dealing with their parents' illnesses, anxiety and fear. These fragments led me to seek clarity and meaning by interviewing hundreds of the responders and members of their family. The responders themselves helped me to do so, by entrusting me with their stories as part of our oral history program, "Remembering 9/11". The second event that happened was the donation of the archive of these interviews to the Library of Congress.

In this holiday season, these oral histories represent a significant and important gift to our nation which continues to suffer from the lingering uncertainty and instability that the 9/11 terrorist attacks produced, and that recent attacks perpetuate. As time passes, the attacks' effects on our society and our way of life seem ever more opaque and insidious: coloring our beliefs, influencing our social relationships, shaping our culture, and redefining our identity. This is where, I believe, a fundamental problem lies. How long can we continue to speak circuitously about 9/11 and ignore the deeper existential conflicts that continue to haunt us?

In these interviews, the responders take our hand as they tell of their personal journeys from 9/11 into their suffering and grief in the years since and how they have learned to come to terms with it, and have changed as a result. It is an important perspective that provides a vehicle for deeper understanding.

By listening to responders recount the events of 9/11, we connect to our shared trauma in a new way, with distance and perspective, but also with recognition of the true horror of that tragedy. Although painful, confronting this horror is a necessary step in our healing. But what is truly profound about the responders' stories is that in their telling of the despicable, they bring us along on their path of selflessness, camaraderie, compassion and sacrifice. They show us the importance of hope, community, spirituality, love and understanding in finding solace and clarity after experiencing mass trauma.

It may seem simpler, and less painful, to deal with 9/11 only on the level of providing services and aid to the responders. But I have come to know, through bearing witness to these often painful accounts, that the responders have bestowed upon me a special gift, a new redeeming perspective that promotes empathy, caring and understanding. And that is something from which we all can benefit.

Dr. Benjamin Luft is the Edmond Pellegrino Professor of Medicine at Stony Brook University School of Medicine in NY and Director of the Stony Brook WTC Wellness Program.