Americans have always prided themselves on their humor. Even serious former Supreme Allied Commander and President Dwight D. Eisenhower once noted, “A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership.” But sometimes humor takes a backseat to life.
That happened on 9-11, when heroic 9-11 responders risked all, some gave all. It happened last month in a congressional hearing called to discuss saving the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund. TV funny man Jon Stewart, who once hosted a satirical news show, sat seriously beside a 9-11 responder battling cancer – determined to make a case for others, as he once responded physically to save those in the towers.
The 9-11 first responder was Luiz Alvarez, a former US Marine and New York Police Department bomb detective, who has wrestled with 9-11-related medical issues. He patiently gave voice to the concerns of surviving American heroes – genuine and selfless Americans, who risked all that day and paid with failing health ever since. So did Mr. Stewart, a New Yorker who has taken the health of 9-11 responders as a mission.
Like other responders, Mr. Alvarez has faced multiple cancers from exposure to the jet fuel, mercury and 400 tons of asbestos. As he noted, “9/11 happened, we got called down… It’s my job as an NYPD detective to respond to emergencies, so no hesitation. I’m no one special and I did what all the other guys did.”
His request of Congress that day, which seemed not to have gotten the message, was not to forget. Those who responded also may need help. The Victims Compensation Fund should not be forgotten, depleted, diminished, or deleted. Those it serves have selflessly served, and without asking whether a fund would later exist. They should not have to ask now.
But here he was, Mr. Alvarez. He had undergone almost 70 rounds of chemotherapy, endured multiple operations. But there he was, just seeking to be heard – summoned to be heard. He was in front of Congress, or what he thought would be “Congress,” to finally testify.
Beside him was the funny man, now stilled. That too was fitting. What Mr. Stewart observed – and of course Mr. Alvarez to – was a near empty dais. He could see Congress did not care, even enough to come to a hearing they had called – to listen, maybe question, surely support those his voice represented.
Not only did many members of the US House fail to support the Victim Compensation Fund, most were apparently too busy to attend the hearing – to hear the failing responder’s last words. They had more important things to do – press calls, political games, someone’s ox to gore, more important for sure.
Mr. Stewart finally spoke, because Mr. Alvarez was not about to. Stewart tempered his criticism, but it was sharp: “Accountability doesn’t appear to be something that occurs in this chamber…I’m sorry if I sound angry and undiplomatic, but I am angry, and you should be too.”
So, here is where that story ends. While Mr. Alvarez has taken leave, words of both men still ring. For now, they appear to have moved the US House to consider a bill to “reauthorize funding for 9/11 responders and survivors’ health care.” That legislation is named “Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer, and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11 Victim Compensation Act.”
The bigger question is one Mr. Stewart raised, with suppressed anger and incredulity. He did not say it outright, but one could: How can members of Congress call a hearing, agree to witnesses, summon those witnesses from far and wide, send out press releases congratulating themselves for holding a hearing, suggest they care about the topic, people and policy at hand – and then fail to show up or show up for five minutes and vanish?
Responsible government means responsibly governing – doing the job – with a sense of commitment to others, accountability to the American people, and fidelity to witnesses. Faithful service in Congress is basic. It does not require rushing into burning buildings, risk to life or limb, suffering physical and emotional injuries as law enforcement and first responders do.
It does mean coming to hearings, caring to do your job. It means not being so important that, when a man like Luiz Alvarez shows up to tell you what he gave his life for – and it happens to be you – you cannot be bothered. That is failing to govern, failing to serve, and failing to be one fraction of what Mr. Alverez was – a hero.
Two weeks ago, New York Police Department’s chief of detectives paid tribute to Luis Alvarez, offering: “An inspiration, a warrior, a friend —we will carry his sword.” In our minds’ eye, we all should. He was, as the New York Police Department motto suggests, “Fidelis Ad Mortem,” or “Faithful Unto Death.”