The following is a translation of a speech I gave in French on September 11, 2021, at the Musée Departmental des Sapeurs-Pompiers de l’Ain in Gex on the occasion of the Exposition “Les Pompiers de New-York et les attentats du 11 septembre, 2001," which runs from June 5 to October 30.
On the 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001, many discussions are being held about the political implications of 9/11 for the United States and the world. Was it another nail in the coffin of the end of the American Empire? A follow-up to the retreat from Vietnam? The beginning of the forever war in Afghanistan? On this occasion, and here in this museum, it is important that we focus on firemen and their role in the catastrophic events that day. For beyond the political there is always the human. This most impressive museum is a fitting place to remember and honor the firemen of New York and the 343 who lost their lives.
I am a New Yorker, as my accent testifies. I was born and raised in New York City. I taught in the South Bronx and Harlem for 4 years. I have had experience with NY firemen. Up until the age of 26, I was a resident of New York. Even now, after 50 years in Switzerland, I still feel my New York roots.
We live in a time of a certain cynicism towards public service. The videos of the death of George Floyd have led to criticisms of the police and even calls for defunding police departments. The slow official reaction to COVID-19 has led to criticisms of governments and multilateral organizations such as the World Health Organization in Geneva.
The failure of the War on Terror has not given us more confidence in the public sector. The lack of functioning governments in the Middle East has led to chaos, migration and a further degradation of human rights. We live in an era of complicity theories, even about simple vaccinations against COVID-19. We have become cynical about public service in general
In the preface to a magnificent book on the New York Fire Department, a French firefighter said: “Nous avons choisi une profession dont le seul but est de protéger et de servir la vie.”
There can be no cynicism about fire fighters. There can be no cynicism about what they did during and after 9/11. 343 firemen died on Sept 11, the most ever who died fighting a fire in peacetime. Without hesitation, New York’s firemen entered the collapsing buildings and worked to “servir la vie.” We cannot say enough nor honor enough their heroism. No cynicism here about what they did and their devotion. And their heroic fight against fires continues throughout the United States and Europe. The words “respect” and “admire” are not enough.
For many of the firemen who worked at Ground Zero and survived, their trauma continues. The Washington Post recently reported that of 1,800 responders who were initially healthy, 14 percent developed health problems such as post trauma stress disorder, blood complications and early Alzheimer’s disease. Many of the surviving firefighter heroes of 9/11 and their families still pay the price for their efforts to save others.
In our era of cynicism and individualism, the firemen are an exception. No one says we should defund the fire departments as they do for the police. On this 20th anniversary of 9/11, when there will be numerous commentaries about its political implications, it is fitting that here, in this museum, we pay tribute to the New York firefighters and all firefighters whose only goal is to protect and put themselves at the service of others. In my limited French, I look for words to express more than respect and admiration.
I visited this museum on Wednesday and remain moved by all the reminders of that horrific day, especially the pictures of the grieving children who lost a parent. What can one say to them?
We admire and respect all whose only goal is to protect and serve the lives of others. And although September 11, 2001, seems very long ago for some, this ceremony is a fitting reminder of the true heroism of New York’s firemen. We will never forget the events of September 11, 2001. Even after 20 years, we will not forget what the 343 of New York’s finest sacrificed for others.
As I search for words beyond admiration and respect for firemen all over the world, I conclude with the simplest my limited French will allow me: Un grand merci.