This month, people throughout the country and the world commemorated the eighth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The largest gatherings took place at the sites of the attacks, in New York City, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and in Pennsylvania at the crash site of Flight 93.
At the Pentagon, President Barack Obama spoke to the public, addressing how he hopes Americans will continue to honor both the innocent victims and those who have sacrificed their lives since the attack. Obama said, “We honor all those who gave their lives so that others might live, and all the survivors who battled burns and wounds and helped each other rebuild their lives; men and women who gave life to that most simple of rules: I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper.”
For his first September 11 as president, Obama put initiatives in place to honor the day. One of the programs that President Obama has initiated is the development of National Day of Service and Remembrance. At the Pentagon ceremony, Obama explained the purpose of the holiday: “We can summon once more that ordinary goodness of America to serve our communities, to strengthen our country, and to better our world.”
In a press release about the day, the President said, “I call upon all Americans to join in service and honor the lives we lost, the heroes who responded in our hour of need, and the brave men and women in uniform who continue to protect our country at home and abroad.”
The day, the idea for which was originated by family members of victims of the attacks, is viewed as a day to reunite people throughout the country, while encouraging citizens to direct their attention to community service and acts of compassion. Programs that are encouraged include conservation projects, care packages for soldiers, and other volunteer activities. President Obama and his wife took part in the day by volunteering with Habitat for Humanity to help to revitalize the capital city.
Although new initiatives such as the National Day of Service continue the spirit of honoring September 11’s fallen, there are important continuing issues from the attacks that the President and Congress still need to address.
Though the attacks took place over eight years ago, rescue workers, volunteers, and survivors of the attacks are still experiencing medical problems, such as illnesses and psychological trauma.
One victim, Joe Picurro, was a freelance iron worker who volunteered at Ground Zero cleaning up the wreckage in the days following the attack. Eight years later, he described in an interview with Democracy Now! that he still suffers from respiratory impairment because of the chemical and dust particles that he inhaled at the site of the attack while working there over the period of a month. In the interview, he said that despite being in his thirties he has been told by doctors that he has the lungs of someone in their nineties, and he is expected to die in the next year, being added to the evergrowing list of victims of 9/11.
A New York Times article also recently detailed the story of Leon Heyward, the most recent victim of September 11. Heyward, who worked near the towers and stayed in Manhattan to help people escape from buildings, became ill shortly after the attacks, suffering respiratory and memory issues. Heyward died last October as a result of illnesses from the attack, adding him to the ever-rising list of victims.
Although these are just two examples of extreme cases of illness resulting from the attacks, there are thousands more who have suffered. Thus far, around 40,000 rescue,
recovery, and clean-up workers have registered with the state of New York as people with medical problems, or who are likely to have medical issues arise. Over 10,000 of these people have in the past received federally funded treatment for physical health conditions, and an additional 5,000 have received funding for mental health conditions.
The registration deadline is until September of next year, but after that date, newly registered victims will no longer be eligible for compensation from the state to help cover medical costs. This is an issue because many latent illnesses, such as cancer, which would result from the inhalation of toxic chemicals, cement and even asbestos particles, are expected to become evident in coming decades.
President Obama took action earlier this month by announcing that the Human Health and Services Department has reappointed Dr. John Howard as the country’s 9/11 Health Coordinator.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised Obama for his action, and stated that as a result of Dr. Howard’s work, “the country now has three centers of excellence dedicated to treating, monitoring and understanding the health impacts of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.” Bloomberg also said that Howard has in the past championed funding for research regarding the health of those affected by 9/11.
Although there is a new leader in place, there is still a negative outlook for existing programs, and Congress and the President are currently taking steps to address these issues. Recently, Representative Frank Pallone Jr. of New York announced that at the end of September, will meet to discuss a bill which according to the World Trade Center Medical Working Group of New York City will, “provide long-term federal funding for medical monitoring and treatment of those affected by 9/11.”
Throughout the country, and especially in New York City, there are programs in place, but their future is in jeopardy in coming years. According to the World Trade Center Medical Working Group of New York City, a government agency in New York, the future of the programs are questionable. In their “2008 Annual Report on 9/11 Health,” they said that, “Both FDNY and the New York/New Jersey WTC Clinical Consortium are funded through 2009 only.” Other programs at Mount Sinai and Bellevue Hospitals in New York also have futures that are uncertain in the coming years.
Although Obama and other decision makers are making progress with those affected by 9/11 at home, other Americans are abroad serving in Afghanistan, as efforts in the Overseas Contingency Operation, formerly the War on Terror continue. The War on Terror originally began in October of 2001 in order to remove the Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders from positions of power, and the war has continued for eight years.
Obama stated in his speech at the Pentagon, “Let us renew our resolve against those who perpetrated this barbaric act and who plot against us still. In defense of our nation we will never waver; in pursuit of al Qaeda and its extremist allies, we will never falter.”
In the coming months, experts believe that the war in Afghanistan will continue to escalate. Although President Obama has pledged to withdraw troops from Iraq by 2012, there has been no such statement regarding Afghanistan, and the number of troops there continues to rise. According to CNN, the United States currently has 62,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan, and NATO has an additional 35,000. By the end of the year, however, those numbers will rise, as the Pentagon plans to send 6,000 more troops. This is in response to the fact that August, the ninety-fifth month of the war was the deadliest in the eight-year war, with forty-six American soldiers killed.
In addition to the increase in number of deaths among American troops, civilian casualties have been on the rise as well. 2008 was the deadliest year of the war so far, with over 2,100 civilian deaths, a forty percent increase over the previous year. 2009 seems to be equally if not more deadly. According to the “Mid-Year Bulletin on Protection of Civilian Rights in Armed Conflict,” produced by the United Nations, there were 1,013 civilian deaths in the first half of 2009, a rise over the 818 Afghan civilians who were killed by this time last year.
There are two main sources of violence that lead to these deaths. The first is insurgent roadside bombs and suicide attacks perpetrated by members of the Taliban and other extremists, which resulted in around sixty percent of the deaths. The second main cause is Western military airstrikes, responsible for another thirty percent of the deaths.
In response to the increase in number of civilian deaths from air raids, top military officials, such as General Stanley A. McChrystal, have called for a change in United States military strategy. The new strategy that McChrystal advises would involve concentrating airstrikes on Al Qaeda cells in Pakistan using special forces and missiles. This contrasts to the current strategy of focusing primarily on protecting the Afghan population from the Taliban. McChrystal submitted a report to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in late August, and it is currently under review by President Obama.
In addition to possibly restructuring the war in Afghanistan, other efforts are being made to restructure how terrorism is fought. In his first day in office, President Obama prohibited the use of torture and ordered that the prison at Guantanamo Bay be closed. Currently, Guantanamo Bay is home to terror suspects, and in the past it has had a history of torturing prisoners. Since Obama’s inauguration eight months ago, however, the prison camp continues to house detainees, many of whom have been subjected to enhanced interrogation methods including sensory and sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and abuse, and waterboarding. The off-shore military base’s closure has met with Congressional opposition and the problem of where to hold and whether to release detainees. At its most populous, the base held about 750 people; as of January 17, 2009, approximately 245 detainees remain at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Additional reporting by Samantha Herndon.