September 11, 2001 will always remain an infamous day to the world. But to the men and women of the NYPD and FDNY it remains indelibly stamped in their minds. For on that tragic September morning in the dying embers of summer, they raced towards lower Manhattan by any means necessary.
Battling their way through the sea of humanity, fearfully fleeing the devastation, these men frantically checked their pagers and mobile phones for any information that may enlighten them with regard to the inferno which was about to engulf them. They stood in ranks on Liberty, Church and Barkley Streets as terrified civilians by the thousands fled north on the elevated West Side Highway.
These individuals whose aspirations in life were the most humbling – save enough for a house in the ‘burbs, enough to put their children through college, that long dreamed-of trip back to the old sod or whatever country bore their ancestors, the highlight of their week shooting the breeze over a few ice-cold beers – for many hundreds of these men these dreams and aspirations were to lay unfulfilled in the ruins and the wreckage of the World Trade Center.
As they donned their breathing equipment and held their torch-fire axes, many stood in silence, attempting to comprehend the incomprehensible as they stared skyward at what appeared to many as Dante’s Inferno. Some made frantic cellphone calls home, fully knowing it may be their last, some blessed themselves and prayed to their god, many thinking they may see him soon. If they were fearful, they did not show it, for it was not fear and self-motivation that propelled these individuals into the World Trade Center and up smoke-filled stairwells.
It was, to quote Chief Edward F. Croker, an Irish-born American of the fire department of New York from 1899-1911, “an act of unselfish bravery.” Chief Croker said, “When a man becomes a firefighter, his greatest act of bravery has already been accomplished.” These sons and daughters of immigrants were the finest examples of bravery humanity has ever produced. The compassion beating in the hearts of these individuals will remain unsurpassed in our lifetime. They defined everything great about the nation and the unconquerable soul of the human spirit.
On the morning of this barbaric act, as millions viewed throughout the world on TV screens, questioning the very existence of a god in the face of such barbarism, the individuals of FDNY and NYPD restored my faith in the existence of a just compassionate god. For their actions exemplified that. They shall forever remain deep in our hearts and in our memory, as those who sacrificed their lives so that others might live. No greater tribute can be bestowed upon them.
Just for a moment, remember where you were on that fearful morning and the fear you felt and think what these individuals were doing at that very exact moment. Yet the story of these individuals who emanated everything great about mankind has been tragically hijacked by those dark forces of mankind, those who took the sacrifice of these people and repeatedly used it as an excuse for the justification of torture. These men did not give their lives so that people could torture in the name of political ends.
The discussion of whether the U.S. government tortured or not is now moot. President Obama has stated that it did. The debate should not be one of silence. Where were those who protested outside the British Embassy in 1971 when Irish men were interned without charge or trial, when the same thing was happening in Guantánamo? Where were those who protested that Irish prisoners were being hooded, sleep deprived and subjected to white noise techniques and beaten in interrogation centers throughout Northern Ireland, when the recently released torture memos shows that the U.S. government authorized the same techniques? Where are those who said that Diplock courts with no jury in Northern Ireland was in breach of international law? And those who protested that the only evidence used to convict individuals wereconfessions beaten from people in Northern Ireland and English police stations? Where are those who protested that the case of the Birmingham Six and my own case, the Guildford Four, were show trials and an assault against all concepts of juris prudence? Where are those who protested the British Prevention of Terrorism Act, under which I was the first person arrested and spent the next fifteen years innocent in prison, as racist because it only applied to Irish people?
Where are the protesters when we need them today?
The Irish in America probably know more than any other group that Draconian laws do not work. Nor have we forgotten our history, that which defined us. Or in the cold light of day were afraid to speak. Fear did not hinder us when it happened to our own. And fear did not hinder the finest from our race who stared it in the face and marched towards it. These men were not quiet on the morning of September 11 and their sacrifice should not be used, and their memory besmirched, as a justification for torture.
Paul Hill was one of the Guildford Four. He spent over 15 years in British jails for a crime that he and the others charged with him did not commit – the bombing of a pub in Guildford. Convictions were based on confessions obtained by torture.
Originally published in July 26, 2009