NYT Editorial: Will We Always Remember 9/11?

Sep 11, 2015
In The News

Soon after the horrific destruction of the World Trade Center towers 14 years ago, bumper stickers abounded in parallel with the nation’s grief. “Never Forget,” one proclaimed with great resolve. “We Will Always Remember,” promised another.

Now that they have faded from sight, their underlying message is being put to the test in Congress. The nation’s lawmakers have nothing less than a moral obligation to renew the health care and compensation programs for the thousands of 9/11 responders and volunteers severely stricken by their long labors at ground zero’s infernal pile of devastation.

These selfless workers were home-front casualties in what politicians presented as a war on terror. More than 33,000 responders and volunteers have developed illnesses from their time at the 9/11 sites, including Shanksville, Pa., and the Pentagon. Some 3,700 of them, including about 1,000 from the New York Fire Department, have developed cancers attributed to toxins that suffused ground zero.

Doctors expect more cancer victims in the future. But unless Congress renews the health care and compensation programs, patients will be deprived of fair treatment, while the 6,285 victims and their families awarded compensation for various illnesses could see their payments cut by an estimated 50 percent, according to program administrators. So far, the compensation fund has given $1.44 billion to patients and to families who lost breadwinners.

Five years ago, Congress acted after a fractious debate and compromise that produced the five-year programs, when both of them should have been open-ended, like the federal programs that help miners suffering from black-lung disease and nuclear plant workers harmed by their jobs. Unless there is a firm congressional commitment, crucial parts of the programs could start to phase out this year as patients and their medical teams receive the requisite notice of an uncertain future.

The aftermath of 9/11 allows for no simplistic closure, and Congress must not let these worthy programs slip away in yet another season of dysfunction. It should act now and not wait for the programs’ final months amid the chaos of next year’s election politics.

There are signs that some in Congress will never forget. Measures to renew the two programs have 129 House and 30 Senate sponsors. But the task needs congressional leaders to step up in good conscience with a sense of national priority. This is what more than 70,000 ordinary Americans did 14 years ago, journeying from nearly every congressional district to lead the way in repairing the devastation of 9/11.