Saturday, December 18, 2010

Not doing the right thing

By Don Klein

When I think of bravery and self-sacrifice I can’t help but visualize the indelible and lasting image of those martyred firefighters and policemen racing into the scorching, choking New York skyscrapers in September 2001. That picture will never escape my mind.

As thousands of innocent occupants fled the inferno to safety several hundred first responders, laden down with heavy hoses and air packs, rushed into danger without regard to their safety. It was surreal. Why would they do that when good reason would insist that they exit, not enter, the death traps?

When the toll was counted after the collapse of the buildings, 343 firefighters and 60 policemen died in the tragedy.

By and large that is what firefighters and policemen do. They go where the trouble is and don’t slow down because it might be dangerous or because it is a holiday.

But that is not the end to the calamity. For months afterward scores of surviving firefighters, joined by other volunteers and off-duty cops, searched the rubble looking for survivors and when that hope dissipated, they worked to recover as many of the 2,742 of the dead they could from the entangled debris to provide them with honorable burials.

There was nothing anyone could do for the dead but the first responders who stayed at the scene for months have been rewarded by fate with dreadful health problems (severe lung ailments and untreatable cancers). Now the United States Senate rewarded them with callous indifference.

Legislation to provide relief for these heroes passed the House of Representatives but has been delayed, if not halted altogether, by Senate Republicans. Why? One reason is it involves a lot of money and in this age of monstrous deficits the Republicans only have room to remember the rich with a $900 billion unfunded boondoggle in tax cuts while real American heroes can wretch themselves into oblivion.

Senate Republicans will allow these 9/11 champions to suffer and die while they pander to the most covetous, wealthy of Americans. The Republicans don’t care because they will never get a dimes worth of campaign donations from firefighters while the upper crust will reward their political lap dogs handsomely before the next election.

Most Americans strongly disagree with these astigmatic Republicans. When I was an adolescent living in my family’s apartment in the Bronx I was awaken one night by a noisy commotion across the street in the early hours of a wintery morning. It turned out that a three alarm fire had engulfed a five story apartment house. It was so cold the water thrust from multiple fire hoses into the upper floors froze into long stalactites hanging from the fire escapes on the way down.

Mesmerized by the scene unfolding before my eyes I suddenly noticed housewives from other houses in the areas, my mother included, each bundled against the cold, carrying pots of hot coffee to the firefighters as the battle against the flames went on for hours.

It was a small gesture and they didn’t have to do it, but the sense of community was strong in those days. The firefighters were protecting their families and the least they could do was to offer them something hot on a frigid night.

Not so with our apathetic senators. Their hearts are so cold they see nothing wrong with spitting on ordinary people. They have been doing it for years. It is their second nature. What is difficult to understand is why we keep sending these contaminated minions of the rich and privileged back to Congress election after election?

Sen. Jon Llewellyn Kyl, (R-Arizona) gave another explanation why the bill to relieve the first responders should not be brought up during the lame duck period. They would have to work over the Christmas holiday week and that, according to him, "would disrespect" Christians observing Christmas.

I would like to see Kyl present one Christian, other than a rock-ribbed Republican, who would object to Congress working during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and one who would not favor giving assistance to 9/11 heroes.

The Republicans are the first to holler "class warfare" whenever anyone says that the rich should pay a larger share of income taxes than others. Yet it is senators like Kyl who are the people engaged in class warfare. Why? Because it is all right for you and me and every other ordinary citizen to work during the Christmas-New Year’s holidays but not members of Congress.

Check any fire house or police station anywhere in the country this holiday season and you will find men and women on duty as they have been during every holiday in the history of the United States. These are the working brothers and sisters of the injured first responders that Kyl disregards because he doesn’t think there is enough time to do the right thing.

We could hope the day never comes when Jon Llewellyn Kyl’s house is on fire and when the local fire house gets the alarm the crew on duty stops to take a vote requiring a super majority before the trucks roll. It would never happen because firefighters are committed to serving the public. Too bad Republican senators are not.