For all Americans, and particularly Long Islanders, who recall the horror of Sept. 11, 2001, reliving those tragic moments each year is devastating, and yet, at the same time, gratifying and reassuring. Devastating because we think of the friends, neighbors, family members and the so many innocents we never knew who perished that fateful day at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the many thousands who have subsequently died or are suffering from 9/11-related illnesses. Gratifying and reassuring because we saw Americans stand together united and strong as never before in our lifetimes. The enemy who had intended to break us instead generated a rebirth of patriotism and community spirit.
I distinctly recall being at ground zero on Sept. 14, just three days after the attacks, when President George W. Bush stood amid the ruins of the twin towers with his arm around the shoulder of retired FDNY firefighter Bob Beckwith, from Baldwin, pledging through a bullhorn that the terrorists would “hear all of us soon.” Inspiring as were the president’s words, so, too, were the looks of determination and strength on the faces of the cops, firefighters, EMS and construction workers searching for remains among the tons of debris and twisted steel.
Then there were the endless funerals, wakes and memorial services to attend, beginning for me the morning of Sept. 15, at St. Killian’s Church in Farmingdale, where mourners lined the streets and filled the church to bid farewell to FDNY Chief of Department Pete Ganci. The services at which I was asked to speak included those for firefighters Tim and Tommy Haskell, of Seaford; George Cain, of Massapequa; and Michael Boyle and Dave Arce, of Westbury. It was agonizing to see the anguished looks on the faces of the spouses, children and parents of these brave men, brought down so unexpectedly in the prime of their lives.
The following several months saw federal legislation passed, and then tense public meetings and behind-the-scenes negotiations attempting to devise formulas for providing fair and adequate compensation for families of 9/11 victims. In short, play God and try to determine the value of a human life.
Significant changes were made in the federal government, with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security as well as House and Senate committees on Homeland Security, while the New York City, Nassau and Suffolk County police departments formed and deployed sophisticated counterterrorism units. Because of those efforts, a number of terrorist attacks against New York have been prevented, and no large-scale attack has been successful since 9/11.
Peter King is a former congressman, and a former chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security.