Absence of Empathy

As the latest memorial of mass murder recedes into our collective calendar’s crossed out dates, we should look back…at how we look back, and peer beyond the grief and suffering, into the rank hypocrisy of America’s leaders who make a mockery of it all.

When President Barack Obama read scriptures and saluted the armed forces on Sunday, little was said of the injustice the U.S. government continues to commit against its own people.

On September 11, 2001, fire-fighters, police, emergency services and regular civilians waded into the poisonous wreckage of the twin towers in search of survivors and human remains.

Perhaps they had no idea.

Or they put out of mind, the maw of toxicity in which they were working:  90,000 litres of jet fuel from the fallen planes, hundreds of tonnes of asbestos, pulverised lead, mercury and other highly toxic chemicals.

These men and women went in wearing no more than a bandanna over their mouths or what the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart described as the kind of mask “a Japanese businessman would wear when he has a cold.”

Some responders were given protection, many were not.

Recently released documents show that on September 11, 2001 and the days that followed, federal officials in Washington and New York downplayed concerns about health risks, concealing information that might have helped people who were contaminated by the chemicals at Ground Zero.

Signs warning people not to come to work were re-written to give them the impression it was safe to do so. Officials declared certain areas safe before testing had begun.

Many volunteered or were asked to work in and around “The Pile.
That is, the pile of toxic debris, in which they developed respiratory problems and what became known as World Trade Centre Cough. For many, these were the beginnings of malignant cancers that have so far taken hundreds of lives.

A long-delayed government bill to provide $7.4 billion in free health care and compensation payments was blocked by Republicans.  It has since been revised and passed, with the following catch: people could apply for some treatments under the act, such as for post-traumatic stress disorder. But not cancer:  it has been excluded from federal health funding. Officials argue there’s insufficient evidence to prove any direct link between responders’ exposure to the carcinogens at Ground Zero, and the disease.

But a link has become quite clear indeed.
Dr. David Prezant
, chief medical officer at New York City Fire Department, has authored several studies on the health effects of exposure to World Trade Centre dust, including one just published in the Lancet Medical Journal.

It found that fire-fighters who were involved in the days and weeks that followed the trade centre attacks had a 19% higher risk of contracting cancer than people who were not exposed.

Responders continue to suffer from a number of illnesses, and struggle to get decent medical care.

If the government has done little for them, they have done even less for the other ‘heroes’ that were packed off to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Returning war veterans are far more likely than the rest of the population to be unemployed and to suffer from mental illness. Staggering numbers live on the streets and in shelters.  One study found that more than 130,000 veterans spent at least one night in a homeless shelter in 2009 — a count that did not include those living on the streets. The numbers are expected to go up as more veterans return home.

If this is how the US treats its heroes, it’s little wonder the world’s robo-cop is unperturbed by the “collateral damage” it wreaks abroad.

So many Iraqi civilians have been killed since the American invasion in 2003 that communities must sometimes dig mass graves, without so much as a proper funeral – let alone a yearly national ceremony.  It wouldn’t make sense anyway –  Iraqis wouldn’t know which date to commemorate.

US officials have a precise record of American casualties, but keep no such tally for the Iraqi dead. It’s unclear whether this is because policy-makers knew the numbers would be so high that they would undermine popular support for the occupation, or if it’s out of an unspoken belief that Iraqi lives are simply worth less than the flag-draped US servicemen and women. NGOs and think-tanks have nevertheless kept track of the Iraqi dead and numbers range from 100,000 and up.

Add to this the unseen foreigners in faraway lands snatched by secret services, detained for months – and indeed years. Many have been tortured in jails all over the world in America’s outsourced system of summary justice – and never brought to trial. Most Guantanamo detainees have been sent quietly back to their home countries, neither charged nor compensated for the permanent physical and psychological damage done to them and their families.

What underlines it all is a deep disdain for human rights and a profound lack of empathy.
This isn’t new: both pre-date the attack on the US, and could be counted among its fundamental causes.

Writer Martin Amis tried to put his finger on it just days after the planes plunged into the twin towers:  “Various national characteristics – self-reliance, a fiercer patriotism than any in western Europe, an assiduous geographical incuriosity – have created a deficit of empathy for the sufferings of people far away.”

This only begins to describe some of Washington’s players, the narrow interest groups that corrupt them, and the contempt they hold for those outside of their inner circle.

How else to explain the highest levels of inequality in the western world, Washington’s willingness to take the country to the brink of bankruptcy, or its tax cuts for the wealthy in the face of slashed social programs for the poor?

The anniversary’s solemn talk of unity, heroes and other tropes of a healthy, unified and mythical nation, perpetuates the gullible stupor of credulous Americans, and insults the intelligence of those who know better.

The US is all but paralyzed by a cruel and vicious parasite intent on bleeding the body politic white.

The only thing standing in the way of further decline are the men, women and children who refuse to take part in this poisonous political pantomime.

A group of veteran police officers, fire fighters, construction workers and surviving families of those killed in September, used their experience to create H.E.A.R.T. 9/11 to respond to disasters elsewhere in the world.

Private donors give hundreds of millions of dollars to veterans and their families to make up for chronic shortfalls in government funding.

A former US Environmental Protection Agency scientist has launched a petition calling for stronger federal rules on the materials used in buildings – to avoid the kind of chemical fallout that continues to sicken and kill 9-11 responders.

Far from the speeches and public displays of hollow patriotism, these people and countless others are trying to save and transform people’s lives.

Turn off the TV and leave the political theatre to the transparent actors and rotting stage they play on.

Support the people making a real difference.

Join them.

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