By Bethan Johnson, Grassroots Mobilization Associate
September 11, 2015
Two weeks ago as I boarded the Metro to work, I read that Marcy Borders had died of cancer at the age of 42. Her name likely is not particularly familiar to most Americans, since the media has called her ‘The Dust Lady’ for the last 14 years. The photograph of her as she evacuated the North Tower—her fancy dress and shoes coated in white dust, the hint of her pearl necklace still visible, and the overwhelming look of confusion and fear on her face—has been used in artistic efforts tocapture the national mood in the wake of the attacks.
As I finished the article, without thinking, I started calculating how long it would take to walk to work from my apartment so that I could avoid public transportation. I started typing a note on my phone to call my parents and siblings to check in on where and how they were on the 11th (it’s a lingering result of the hours I watched my father pace around the house calling my mother’s cell phone trying to hear if she had gone into the Trade Center to do business that day, as she sometimes did, only to get a busy signal for hours). In the space of two Metro stops, I had totally planned out how I would mark the anniversary and it was entirely based on fear, and, for two weeks, I was committed to that plan.
But when I woke up this morning to participate in a moment of silence and watch a portion of the commemoration ceremony online, I realized that there was a much better way for me to spend this day. I remembered was that, in the midst of all the discussions about the federal budget and the planning for the papal visit, another key piece of legislation was under consideration that could honor those who suffered the effects of the terrorist attacks.
The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act—named after a New York Police Department officer who died of respiratory disease often attributed to his work as a rescue and recovery worker at Ground Zero—is set to expire this month. Although the law includes its own $1.6 billion health care and monitoring mechanisms, the act also created the funding necessary to establish the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, which uses its $2.75 billion to help first responders pay for medical expenses related to the terrorist attacks. Covering costs related to the development of dozens of forms of cancer, respiratory problems, and other long-term medical issues, the funding has already helped thousands of first responders gain the access they need to adequate medical coverage and is still reviewing thousands of more cases. Currently, there is no state without a survivor of the attacks and only six Congressional districts without a registered survivor or responder.
Passed in 2010, the law’s five year authorization timeline will soon expire. While some believe that the fund has enough money to survive for a few months without the reauthorization of the act, if Congress fails to renew the law, the money will soon dry up and leave many without the money they need to survive or remain healthy. First responders and survivors are now calling on Congress to pass The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act, which not only reauthorizes the 2010 act, but also makes it permanent. Next week, more than 100 first responders will come to Congress to lobby for just this policy, for essentially the lives of their friends and family.
While supporting EMTs, fire fighters, police officer, and survivors who had risked their lives and health in the face of terrorism may seem to be without any real opposition, the reauthorization of this act and with it the funding it provides is no small order; while the rhetorical bipartisan support exists, acting on these feelings may prove more challenging. The bill famously languished in Congress and faced a filibuster for a long period of time before passing almost ten years after the attacks. Moreover, given the gridlock in Washington and the focus remaining on the large issue of the entire federal budget, the reauthorization plan could face an uphill battle without a reminder from We the People.
First responders’ call for government action speaks to me, reverberating in my bones, for many reasons. Catholic Social Tradition has taught me that we are called to stand in solidarity with those in need and compels us to advocate for human dignity. When I try to imagine the actions of these responders, all I think of is Jesus’s lesson to the apostles “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13) I feel compelled to live out Jesus’s call in this small way in the face of the need of those who heeded his commandment in the most dramatic of circumstances.
Listening to the stories of survivors as they talked about how they were diagnosed with life-threatening or life-altering conditions, as a cancer survivor, I also saw in them brothers- and sisters- in-struggle. To date, the Center for Disease Control has reported detecting 4,385 cases of cancer in responders and survivors. Being unexpectedly and unavoidably under siege from your own body is traumatizing on its own and I feel strongly that no person should be forced to fight for their life and for recognition by the government at the same time.
Finally, as a resident of the United States, I have internalized a respect for those who serve our nation. The rhetoric of honoring the people who risk their lives for our nation’s safety that is so frequently used in politics now faces a real test of its veracity with The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act. To me, making the law and the funding it provides permanent is a way of acknowledging the hardships of responders and survivors and supporting efforts to recognize their continued bravery. This law now stands before all of Congress, which means that we all have a role to play in reaffirming our commitment to these ideals and expressing our solidarity for their struggles.
Today, I took the metro to work and will call my family at the end of the evening to ask them how their day was instead of where they were. After a moment of silent reflection, I spent the morning to reach out to my members of Congress to tell them how passionately I feel about their need to act on this issue. It took only a matter of minutes, but it entirely changed my day.
Today I used my passion to respect human dignity, I lifted up my voice to amplify the calls for justice and recognition by survivors, and devoted time to listening to the account of those lives the Fund saved, and, honestly, no scenic walk around the nation’s capital or few more moments of feeling secure could ever compare.