On the anniversaries of the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center, we witness many television presentations recalling the sacrifices and heroism of the firefighters that survived and perished trying to save innocent citizens as the twin towers of New York City came tumbling down. With this in mind we might reflect on what firefighters represent, not merely to American civilization, but to labor’s role in its pursuit of self-government.
The state and media collaborate to offer us a pageant of sacrifice animated by almost true portraits of a slice of the working class. Under these conditions—rarely others—the image-makers imagine aspects of labor as the backbone of national purpose and the salt of the earth in order to subtly fuel the war machine. They also elevated firefighters at the expense of other workers who died or carried out heroic deeds that day, even as city bosses attacked the contracts of both firefighters and police after 9/11. The consequences today are that those workers who weren’t also elevated to proper heroic status have no healthcare for their chronic and deadly illnesses they were lied to about. It is a perfect example of the rulers breaking down working class solidarity nationally and internationally. But looking closer at the work and experience of firefighters, can we see a different potential?
Firefighting is a remarkable working class vocation. Marrying the skills of mental and manual labor, scientific know-how with strategic wisdom and courage, firefighters are not merely wage earners, but soldiers for civil defense. They perhaps come closest to a communal life without thinking about it in ideal terms. In the firehouse, a collective life is shared where (most often) men divide up the cooking and cleaning, not merely the maintenance of their fire safety equipment, caring for and nurturing each other, while sharing the bonding of fraternity life. Some are single, some are married, some are fathers. Yet despite immediate family lineage they all refer to each other as brothers.
A youthful desire to aspire to heroic efforts is moderated by elders who know the vulnerability of life and have experience fighting fires, large and small, having faced down countless crises both on and off the job. A common adage is on your day off you don’t want to miss “the big one.” There is a sense of adventure in the challenge of firefighting, and a pride that there are the no expectations of fatalities or injuries despite the dangers. In this ethos of a winning team, firefighters have a sense of the good life; of a unique workplace that they learn to master and control with community service in mind, offering solidarity to the stranger in a time of need. It is part of their collective memory, much like a nation or people recollect the basis of their shared identity and tell stories about their place in the world.
Sometimes, like the American national ethos, all of this is founded on a mix of noble and not-so-noble myths. Much of their world came crashing down on 9/11.
Whether among retired or active firefighters, 9/11 took many lives and brought physical and mental injuries that still remain. They have become an enduring symbol of local, national, and international good will. Firefighters in New York City active today recall the many flowers, candles, donations, kind words and the expressions of solidarity in spirit even from people who didn’t share the same native language or national origin.
This contrasts with the peculiar sensation that there is something wrong in this workplace. Jobs in the firehouse are found equally by ethnic patronage as by physical ability. “Danny Boy,” the symbolic song at firefighters’ funerals, may perhaps be an international song of mourning, but likely among Irish Catholics alone. Irish and Italians predominate, where Blacks, Latinos, Jews, Asians and women are a very small minority or not present at all. There are few Muslims or Arabs in these firehouses; and if there are one or two, like other people of color, they have been asked to do photo opportunities to show the public how enlightened and inclusive the brotherhood is. This may seem remarkable in a diverse place like New York City, but it was a quintessential American city long before 9/11 grabbed the Heartland’s sympathies.
Many firefighters before 9/11 were veterans of the military or were considering enlisting. After 9/11 the support for the U.S. military, in a time of obvious active duty to maintain empire, if to defend the homeland, is even greater. As the firefighters who survived carefully sifted through the acres of rubble where the towers once stood, they reclaimed the mangled bodies of few of their comrades or civilians. Many were vaporized, made ashes and dust. Bone fragments are still collected at the construction site: the memory of their lives recalled as part of a rolling white cloud blowing in their faces.
American civilization likes to claim turning points in history. That is part of creating a sense of national purpose. The state and ruling class like to imagine they are guardians of freedom no matter what party or politician holds power in office. Like a stately priesthood, their memorials reduce the deaths of fallen firefighters, soldiers, and citizens to a supposedly necessary bloodletting. Fragile and complex lives become for them sacrifices at the altar of a unique Freedom they claim to preside over.
But non-American blood runs invisibly from their altars as well. Dusty piles of stone and jagged scrap metal that were once human edifices, where folks live and work, and the searching for innocents is a global phenomenon. These sad anniversaries have been celebrated, before and after 9/11, all over the world. This is especially so in the Middle East and Afghanistan today. Social relations were not fundamentally reordered after 9/11 in these places as has been suggested.
There too, working families are broken by tragedy. And in nations denied their self-governing capacities on a level that even subordinated American labor still does not fully appreciate, 9/11 shows we either contribute to a fight for global self-emancipation or there will be barbarism.
This is not the place to discuss at length the history of American empire, or its political and economic consequences in the world. Nor can one take inventory here of the betrayals of true struggles for national liberation or democracy abroad or at home. But we can say this: in times of great social upheaval, at moments that seem utopian and ones where freedom struggles are the furthest thing from workers’ minds, we have some expertise about how to govern.
It is very difficult, and we should not be alarmed that we have yet to take on this permanent responsibility in all spheres in life. The flawed communal life of the firefighters where mental and manual labor is reconciled for civil defense is one part. That working people’s heroic tasks and commitments are at times stunted by the height of skyscrapers or the limits of human imagination and solidarity does not place labor, or the firefighters, beyond history. The question is: what will we represent and accomplish?
The firefighters are a fitting metaphor for American labor not because they are mostly white or male and have blindspots in their heroic vision. Rather because they have an understanding of social solidarity and civil defense on some level, not unique to them, but important to highlight. When the alarm sounds the firefighters come without regard to race, religion, nationality or gender. And then, like most toilers, return back to “normal”, where our workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods have in actuality smaller conceptions of family and brotherhood then at first we might appreciate.
Taking care of “our children” and “our families”, however we define them, has an independent validity. To not take care of “our own” children in an unfair world is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental. However, the meaning of “the big one”, the wake up alarm for working people and national purpose, must not be a monument to firefighters and other fragile martyrs on the bloody altar of the state and capitalist’s terms.
Rather, our collective memory must call out for an enlarged conception of citizenship where the best of “the firehouse brotherhood and communal life” begins to expand in a more plural ethnic and cultural awareness; governing economic planning, judicial affairs and foreign policy together; and undermining the antagonisms of racism and empire. An appreciation by working people for this potential global solidarity must be part of the collective memory. Otherwise there can be no hope for an end to the senseless sacrifices of funerals and bone collecting.