The health requirements of 10 thousand victims or a border wall? Why is this a hard economic choice?

The WTC victims compensation fund has come up short by about $5 billion, why is that number so familiar?

Published March 3, 2019 8:00AM (EST)

Emergency personnel work in the debris of the World Trade Center in New York, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001.  (AP/Lawrence Jackson)
Emergency personnel work in the debris of the World Trade Center in New York, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001. (AP/Lawrence Jackson)

As we enter into the 2020 fray over the future of the republic there’s no better example of just how dangerously dysfunctional the nation has become than the absurd debate over whether or not we should spend $5.7 billion dollars on President Trump’s southern border wall.

The battle over the border wall that’s being fought to keep Trump’s eroding base in tact comes as homeless Americans are literally dying on the street from exposure to the elements.

This week a broad coalition of unions, along with World Trade Center first responders and survivors were off to a strong start in the nation’s capital for permanent funding for the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund which is running out of money and is set to close next year. At stake is the well-being of tens of thousands of 9/11 first responders, their families and WTC survivors with serious life-threatening diseases.

The United States is deeply in debt. What we choose to fund or not has implications for generations to come. Not long from now we will be paying more annually to just service this ever expanding debt than we do for our oversized military. Climatologists tell us that global warming and rising sea levels are a more clear and present danger that’s a more tangible planetary threat than the table top adversaries the Pentagon dreams up.

At the same time, we know our existing infrastructure is crumbling, yet all the air is swallowed up by the Trump fixation on the wall. What makes this Trump digression so frightfully expensive is the lost opportunity cost that comes with our continued inaction on issues that matter as we remain transfixed by the Trump’s peacock feather fan dance.

We really can’t afford his burlesque diversion anymore. We have sacred promises to keep to our veterans and the 9/11 first responders who did not hesitate to come to the rescue of our nation when it was under attack and helped clean-up the toxic mess that was left behind.

To care and feed his marginal base Trump has relied on his sociopathic ability to generate one falsehood after another in quick succession and with such bravado that he drives his critics to sputtering exasperation. Yet, his army of preprogrammed xenophobes find their fears and racist anxieties validated by everyone of his twisted pronouncements. Trump world is the world they live in and the President’s lies are their shelter and sustenance.

Pity the poor Sheriff of El Paso, who had to fight the good fight with a Trump State of the Union Godzilla-sized lie that his city was a crime ridden disaster until a border barrier was built and safety and decency were restored. On his side, Sheriff Richard Wiles had the truth and a huge posse of long-time residents and national crime experts who all attested Trump’s narrative was a complete fabrication.

“It is sad to hear President Trump state falsehoods about El Paso in an attempt to justify the building of a 2,000-mile wall,” El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles said in a statement in response to Trump’s SOTU prevarications. “El Paso was a safe city long before any wall was built.”

As we look for the radical remedies required to right our sinking ship of state in 2020 it is important to know that official lying from the Oval Office did not just start with the arrival of the Russian linked Queens mob that currently controls it. Just as in carpentry, you can’t effectively remodel a mess unless you identify all the rotten wood.

There’s a deluded editorial consensus that’s developed among the New York Times, Washington Post, MSNBC, ABC, CNN, and NPR that it is only under the tutelage of Trump that dangerous lies have been cooked up in the Oval Office for a "greater purpose."

As a consequence of Trump, we now see past Presidencies through a kind of pastel prism that can’t but help to elevate those past Presidents as paragons of truth that  stand in such stark contrast with the depraved deceit which now holds dominion.

And so, in a strange way it has us morphing the Trump yearning to ‘make America great again’ into a 2020 aspiration to ‘make America a place where facts matter again.’ But the reality is historically facts and the truth haven’t always been the bed rock of American governmental policy. Rather, it has on occasion been deceit and deception. There’s always been an “x” factor of so-called covert strategic interests, what those in power calculate to be in the ‘long-term best interests’ of the nation.

Those behind the scenes power calculations are shared on a ’need to know’ basis and have been used to assassinate foreign leaders of countries we were not at war with, wage covert wars that are done illegally without public declaration, and all manner of sub rosa meddling in other countries internal politics on a scale Putin would be proud of.

And on occasion, it has meant the actual sacrifice of American lives ‘in the service of a greater good’  by letting people be covertly dosed with something that may kill them, or best case for the unsuspecting mark, greatly shorten their life expectancy.

In our red, white and blue ‘best country ever’ cover story these counter-narratives that are about the abuse of power and the breach of trust between our leaders and those they lead, are consigned to obscure footnotes in the American story.

Such was the case for the hundreds of thousands of members of the military, civilian workforce and unsuspecting communities affected by hundreds of atmospheric and underwater nuclear weapon tests starting back in July of 1945.  All along, the government downplayed what they knew about the impacts of the radiation people were being exposed to.

According to the National Association of Atomic Veterans website  “there are approximately 195,000 Atomic Veterans across America who either do not know their oath-of-secrecy has been rescinded, and who are not aware of the potential monetary benefits due them for service connected radiation induced illnesses.”

But to those who might think that this Federal government’s predilection for misleading willing foot soldiers about environmental risks is just a relic of the Cold War, consider the misleading statements offered by former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, who as EPA administrator told the world just days after the 9/11 attack that the air in lower Manhattan was safe to breathe.  

According to an in-depth review undertaken by the Union of Concerned Scientists Whitman’s advisory was made without the “authoritative information on which to base these claims”  while at the same time the “internal agency data” conflicting “with this reassuring public posture were ignored.”

No doubt, the concern must have loomed large that if that part of lower Manhattan was to be perceived by the public to be as contaminated as it was in reality, there would be a dark shadow cast over adjacent Wall Street, the very epicenter of the global trading system upon which American hegemony rests.

The Union of Concerned Scientist’s white paper continues, “The EPA's press releases and public statements after 9/11 were vetted by then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, suggesting that the White House placed politics over science when communicating about ground zero's air quality. Tragically, the impact of this public deception continues to be felt by thousands of rescue workers now plagued by chronic and crippling lung ailments.”

On September 13, 2001, just two days after the attack in which almost 3,000 people died, EPA issued a press release in which it explained sampling of bulk materials and dust found generally low levels of asbestos that “were not detectable or not of concern.” A September 18, 2001 press release was even more upbeat, with EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman saying: "Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, DC that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink."

“EPA scientist Cate Jenkins argues that the agency plainly lied in its public declarations. Jenkins told CBS News in September 2006 that the EPA knew "this dust was highly caustic, in some cases as caustic and alkaline as Drano,” according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

By official estimates there were 90,000 first responders who had come from all five boroughs of New York City and around the world to work the massive World Trade Center debris field that included the human remains of the thousands of people who perished in the attack.

The fires burned for a hundred days at the site and the toxic clean-up took several months. In the years since, medical researchers have identified close to 70 cancers and a long list of respiratory and digestive diseases that have manifested in thousands of people and can be expected to impact tens of thousands more in the future.

The day of the attack the New York City Fire Department lost 343 members in the collapse of the towers. Since that day close to 200 have died from their WTC exposure. The Uniformed Firefighters Association estimates that 6,500 of the 11,000 FDNY connected responders are now battling a one or multiple WTC related diseases.

On the day of the attack the NYPD last 23 officers. Today, the number of police officers killed is also closing in on 200.

In addition, to the army of first responders there were an estimated 400,000 survivors who lived or worked in the hot zone in lower Manhattan. Also, in this tragic mix, thousands of unsuspecting New York City school children whose parents, thinking the air was safe to breathe, sent them to the dozens of schools the City of New York kept open in hot zone.

Under the rules and regulations of the 9/11 WTC Health Program set up by Congress first responders are entitled to free annual screening for the rest of their lives. Survivors, which include thousands of government workers that worked in lower Manhattan, can only get screened if they have developed symptoms, certainly not an optimal circumstance.

Teachers and former public school students, now young adults, are now battling what doctors say are very aggressive WTC linked cancers. The United Federation of Teachers, the union that represents the city’s public school teachers, is pressing the de Blasio administration to find and identify the students that have the elevated WTC disease risk.

It’s hard to know just how many people have already died from WTC related diseases though its likely to be approaching the body count from the day of the attack. While close to 90 percent of the first responders are medically tracked, under 20,000 of the 400,000 survivors have gotten a health screening.

The VCF has settled 20,000 claims and has another 19,000 are pending for WTC disease related deaths and disability claims. According to the WTC Health Program there are already well over 11,000 9/11 related instances of cancers.

At the packed Washington D.C. press conference this week comedian Jon Stewart, a long-time 9/11 health advocate, told reporters that the latest lobbying effort was just the latest push in a what has been a difficult uphill climb for WTC first responders and survivors to get the care and support they and their families require.

The initial EPA mischaracterization of the lower Manhattan air quality has been compounded by steady government resistance to owning the deadly consequences of the EPA’s ‘all clear.’

Even as late as 2007, even as first responders who were in closest proximity to the pile were feeling the effects of their toxic exposure, the City of New York pushed back, adding insult to injury. To this day the municipal pension and medical boards that determine who is eligible for a WTC linked disability can subject applicants to a long drawn out bureaucratic nightmare even as they are coping with a terminal diagnosis.

“They fought when nobody thought they were sick,” Jon Stewart said the press conference that was called  to push for permanent funding for the VCF. “They fought when nobody thought their illness was caused by 9/11. They fought when nobody thought their health care was with paying for. They fought every step of the way and it is an embarrassment to us and our country.”

They say hindsight is 2020. May it be so.

Forget Trump’s vanity wall. Let’s spend money to make whole our fellow Americans who paid such a high price because our nation was attacked and then they were betrayed by their own government that couldn’t bring itself to tell them the truth.

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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