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A Former NYC Firefighter on the Death of Bin Laden

“Hey man, aren’t you from New York. A plane just hit the World Train Center.”

“What? What kind of plane?”

“It’s all over the news.”

I put down the bar bells, hustle into the television room of my gated Florida community and see wreckage, smoke, and flames.

My first counterintuitive thought is, Wow, what a job, I wish I was working.

I was lucky.

What follows is the worst day in department history. New York City lost 343 firefighters.

I lost 45 friends.

Unless, God forbid, a worse disaster befalls us, my career will always be defined by 9/11. After serving 23 years in the busiest houses, I feel like a soldier who missed World War 11. Whenever I say I was a N.Y. firefighter, invariably the next question is,

“Were you at the World Trade Center?”

Now Osama Bin Laden is dead. “Justice has been served,”President Obama says.

I hope so.

My heart screams, “You sonofabitch, rest in pieces.”

But as a Vietnam vet, and a 62-year-old man who has seen first hand suffering and death, I was troubled at the hairless faces swelling in the streets chanting,  “U.S.A., U.S.A.”

If you wear the other man’s caftan, one man’s terrorist becomes another man’s patriot.

What if an Iraqi assassinated George W. Bush and then screamed “justice” while Arabs danced in the streets?

When Muslims dance over our misfortune, we’re repulsed. Similar reactions by Americans send the wrong message throughout the Arab world.

This isn’t a sporting event. These inappropriate celebrations violate human dignity, and the inherent sanctity of human life.  Celebrating death, even an enemies, reminds me of the anger I felt at seeing Afghans dancing in the streets the day the Towers fell.

Veterans and firefighters have no monopoly on graphic, agonizing memories, but men in uniform are painfully aware that casualties have faces, lives and stories.

Numbers can be adjusted, or corrected, people can’t. Bones shatter; blood spills and limbs detach.

The words  “rescue worker dead” flow easy from a commentator’s well-paid lips. But someone who compresses his comrade’s head to prevent his brain from sliding into the desert sand won’t describe death so casually.

The uninitiated can’t conceive what effect fire or explosives has on human flesh or human psyche. We live in “The United States of Amnesia.” Unless tragedy affects us personally, images of unknown heroes helping faceless victims won’t last.

Men who survive disaster or combat see victims differently, not as strangers but as unlucky reflections of themselves.  By vicariously reliving their own nightmares, they share the agony of the fallen: “There but for the grace of God.”

Bin Laden’s assassination might bring closure to 9/11 victims’ families whose experience with the attack was personal. One victim’s brother had tears streaming down his face, but he wasn’t dancing. We shouldn’t either.

This is no game, no time to rejoice, and no time for partisanship. I encourage you to demonstrate the angels of our better nature, expose America’s compassion.

History’s most expensive manhunt is over. I pray Bin Laden’s death brings the victims’ families peace. Bush’s mission completed, our boys should come home from Afghanistan.

But, as a former bookie, I’ll lay odds against it.

Bill O’Connor is a Vietnam veteran, former Bronx firefighter and pub and restaurant owner. He is a stand-up comic and a recent UF journalism graduate. The irreverent and acerbic O’Connor has a weekly column that can be found on-line entitled, “Confessions of a New York Bookie.” He can be reached at: Oconnor.WilliamP@gmail.com

 

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