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Jewish World Review Nov. 12, 2001/ 26 Mar-Cheshvan 5762

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Veterans of this war -- New York firefighters -- deserve better --
IT'S too bad that one of Mayor Rudy Giuliani's final acts in office had to be the scolding of America's sorely needed and, as far as I'm concerned, forever-unimpeachable New York City firefighters. If ever there were a time to look the other way, the recent confrontation between police and firefighters over an understandable protest was it.

Yet more firefighters were arrested last week for their part in the Nov. 2 march to protest the mayor's decision to reduce the number of firefighters and other searchers at Ground Zero. Firefighters and police clashed, and a scuffle ensued.

Although most charges against firefighters have been reduced or dropped -- and city officials Thursday vowed to halt further arrests -- emotions continue to run high.

What's clear is that whatever caused the confrontation to escalate into a few incidents of fisticuffs wasn't cause for legal sanctions or the negative commentary that has ensued. It's hard to blame firefighters for their response to the mayor's decision, which officially was motivated by concern for the searchers' safety.

More wounding by far to the firefighters is the thought that the remains of some 250 of their brothers are buried in the debris and, given the construction-site mentality now taking over at Ground Zero, will end up carelessly discarded. Just last week, a hand reportedly was found in a Staten Island dumpster where World Trade Center debris is being deposited. Fingerprinting revealed that the hand belonged to a young fire lieutenant of the Manhattan Engine Company 4.

It is sadly antithetical that we worship our heroes only while they're performing heroics, and turn our backs as soon as we've had enough. The devotion firefighters have toward one another is what makes them willing and able to fight nature's most vicious element. Without that kind of intense loyalty, they'd be unqualified for the job, yet we ask them to forsake it as our own emotional barometers dictate.

What we've asked is, frankly, un-American. In war, American soldiers don't leave their wounded or dead on the battlefield to be scavenged by animals, the enemy or mammoth machinery. This is war. Ground Zero is the home battlefield, and New York City's firefighters are the soldiers. In characteristically, pre-9-11 American fashion, we seem to want even this both ways. We want He-Men on Disaster Day (Sept. 11) and daisy-plucking poodle-walkers on Parade Day. I, for one, don't want to sensitize the boys downtown. I want them strong, tough and loyal, and that goes for the girls, too, if they wear the uniform. If they lose a little cool in the heat of human passion, especially if it's my brother's dust they're protecting, I'll take it as a tolerable trade-off for a fearless hold on the escape ladder.

Yet the official attitude seems to be that we've had enough of this smoldering mess. I'm not suggesting that Giuliani shares this view. Barring a criminal act, he, too, qualifies for unimpeachable status for his contagious strength and steadfast leadership.

We all know there's nothing left to recover from the heap of rubble that used to be our nation's monument to commerce and American chutzpah. We know that a hand here and a foot there are the most we can hope for. But symbolically, we owe it to the brave souls who gave their lives -- as well as to the survivors of lost loved ones -- to treat the WTC site with respect.

How long is long enough to search and recover the scattered remains of thousands? As with the war against terrorism, as long as it takes.

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.

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© 2001, Tribune Media Services