At Large

9/11 and the first responders

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News on the “9/11” anniversary yesterday focused on the ballooning costs related to the construction and management of the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum (the museum has yet to open) at the World Trade Center.

The New York Times reported earlier that the snag in the opening of the museum could be blamed on “issues” between the Sept. 11 Foundation in charge of the site (headed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg who raised tens of millions of dollars for the project and donated millions of his own money) and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the land on which the WTC stands. The authority is controlled by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who must sign off on any agreement between New York City and State.

Mainly, both sides have been “unable to resolve their differences” over which government agencies will shoulder the operating costs of the museum (with the US Congress balking at picking up the bill), and which of the two—the foundation or the Port Authority—“will have oversight of the museum and the surrounding memorial.”

This is why no one knows when the museum will open for public viewing, a crucial development since maintaining the entire site depends in part on fees to be charged the museum goers.

There’s also a tug-of-war between those who believe the memorial should provide open space for the general public (including picnickers and tourists), and those (mostly family members of 9/11 victims) who think of the entire site as a sanctified area, a solemn memorial for the dead.

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Between the tourists and fund-raisers, and the grieving families, there lies another class of people caught between enjoying the memorial and denouncing it.

“Why are we pouring all this money into buildings when men don’t have enough insurance to buy breathing apparatuses?” asked an indignant Leslie Haskins who lost her firefighter-husband in 9/11 and continues to speak for all the “first responders” who died or got sick because they rushed to save lives in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

They have since been suffering a number of physical and psychological illnesses, ranging from respiratory diseases to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Wire reports say the number of those who died from 9/11-related illnesses may reach more than 1,000 (officially, 2,600 died as a result of the attacks), while at least 20,000 “Ground Zero” workers are seeking treatment.

John Feal, who lost part of his leg doing 9/11 recovery work, was quoted as mourning the loss of those who died that day, but pointing out that “they didn’t suffer long.” In contrast, he says, “these first responders have been slowly dying for 11 years.”

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Reading this, I remembered scenes from the documentary “Sicko,” one of the more popular products from the extensive oeuvre of filmmaker Michael Moore.

He seeks to expose the inequalities fostered by the American health system, which is dominated by private providers and health insurers, and those in other countries which provide universal health care to all citizens. Moore finds a group of 9/11 rescue workers who volunteered to help survivors of the attacks but had been denied government funds to cover their treatment for physical and psychological problems that cropped up as a result of their stint in such a dangerous, stressful, dust-filled rescue site.

Moore gathers these rescuers, along with others seeking health care whom he had interviewed in the course of making “Sicko,” joins them on an ostensible leisurely sail from Miami to Cuba, and ends up at the edge of the American-run Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba.

“Gitmo” is where dozens of suspected terrorists have been detained since 9/11, many of them suspected of having links with the terrorists behind the WTC attacks. All of the detainees, argued Moore, receive free medical care courtesy of the US government. So it was only fair that the authorities running the camp provide the same quality of care to American citizens who had risked their lives and health as a consequence of 9/11.

Driven away by the soldiers guarding the Guantanamo facility, Moore and his ragtag group then proceed to Havana, where they are able to buy inexpensive medicines and receive free medical treatment at a hospital (admittedly one that serves the Cuban elite). Before they leave, the rescue workers are treated to a party by a local Havana fire station, a touching moment of solidarity among the world’s first responders.

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Of course, we are all familiar with Moore’s incendiary brand of filmmaking, and we all know his documentaries are not so much “investigative” pieces as they are opinion pieces undertaken to underscore a previously scripted premise.

In fact “Sicko” was made just as the United States was entering into a period of debate over health care and curbing the power of insurance companies. In this year’s presidential election, in fact, health care is emerging as one contentious issue, with both sides debating whether to scrap the Obama health law altogether, or expand its reach.

I don’t know what happened to the rescuers who joined Moore in Cuba, and if their health situation improved after they returned to the United States. But surely the hoo-ha over the delays in the opening of the 9/11 Museum, and the ill-feeling stoked by public behavior at the Memorial grounds can only fuel even more resentment over the inequalities of the American health system in general.

This is not just an interesting sidelight to an American controversy. Our own health system has been patterned after the US capitalist model, and we are even now seeing how we can woefully neglect people who fall between the cracks.

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