Jon Stewart’s Enduring Role as 9/11 Activist

by Sokolove Law

On September 16th, the day the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act was originally set to expire, Jon Stewart joined 9/11 first-responders on Capitol Hill to lobby Congress. Addressing the first-responders gathered there with him, Stewart said, “Nobody had to lobby you to rush to those towers on that day, I am sorry – and I apologize.” Stewart went on to say, in his signature heartfelt voice:

“I’m embarrassed. I’m embarrassed for our country. I’m embarrassed for New York. I’m embarrassed that you, after serving so selflessly, with such heroism, have to come down here and convince people to do what’s right for the illnesses and difficulties that you suffered because of your heroism and because of your selflessness.”

Who could’ve put it better? Or more poignantly? For Stewart, the impulse to provoke legislative change through heartfelt rhetoric has apparently not diminished since ending his 16-year-stint as host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.

Jon Stewart’s Response to 9/11 and the Resulting Legislation

9/11 is a topic Jon Stewart has never been afraid to address head-on, and, to this day, he continues to advocate for reform and justice. 9 days after the attack, when The Daily Show returned to TV, Stewart approached the audience in an intimate and heartfelt way:

“I’m sorry to do this to you. It’s another entertainment show beginning with an overwrought speech of a shaken host. And television is nothing if not redundant. So, I apologize for that. It’s something that unfortunately we do for ourselves so that we can drain whatever abscess is in our hearts and move onto the business of making you laugh, which we haven’t been able to do very effectively lately.”

Stewart approached the camera as a fellow human, not as a comedic personality, and perhaps many Americans felt comfort then for the first time. 9 years later his advocacy continues, now centering itself on the rights of those workers who were injured during rescue efforts.

It’s important to remember that the dangers a firefighter faces are ongoing and are often less obvious or visible than flames or smoke. When a building collapses, construction materials are released into the air – and often this material is extremely hazardous to human health. This can include such things as asbestos, mercury, and excessive levels of lead. Firefighters and responders are typically the first to breathe all of this harmful material in.

As such, the dangers of a rescue job simply do not end when the flames are extinguished. After years of entering burning buildings, a first-responder can become the victim of severe illness – often cancer – caused by exposure to toxic dust, asbestos, and debris.

As stated so eloquently by Stewart, a firefighter shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not they’ll be medically covered for diseases they might someday develop as a result of their selfless work. They already provide an invaluable public service – asking them to face their healthcare battles on their own without governmental assistance is simply too much to ask of these brave men and women.

Stewart’s Early Support for First-Responders

In his monologue just 9 days after 9/11, Stewart showed respect and admiration for first-responders. He said:

“Any fool can blow something up. Any fool can destroy. But to see these guys, these firefighters, these policemen and people from all over the country, literally, with buckets – rebuilding. That – that’s extraordinary. That’s why we’ve already won. It’s light. It’s democracy. We’ve already won. They can’t shut that down.”

This level of respect toward first-responders was not echoed by the federal government until 10 years later, when, in early 2011, President Obama signed into law the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. This act made it possible for 9/11 victims and first-responders to receive medical care for illnesses caused by exposure to harmful substances released in the air that day.

As a result of this act, over 63,000 9/11 first-responders are now able to receive ongoing medical monitoring. Since 2001, more than 4,166 first-responders and survivors have been diagnosed with a 9/11-related cancer. More than 85 police officers and 110 firefighters have died. What Americans must remember, and what this bill honors, is that 9/11 is not merely something of U.S. History. The effects of 9/11 carry on to this day and can’t be ignored.

In spite of Stewart’s support and the support of many American advocacy groups, this important act expired on October 1st, 2015. Although legislation has been introduced that would make such benefits available permanently, it has yet to be passed by Congress.

The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act, that Stewart and others are fighting for, would ensure that survivors and first-responders receive the care and compensation they need. This act would both renew and make permanent the funds needed for these benefits. Unless this act is renewed, funds that make medical treatment available to first-responders will run out in February of 2016. This means that 9/11 first-responders and victims will have absolutely no support.

Standing Up For What Is Right

The illnesses that have surfaced since 9/11 may only be the beginning of a long trend. After exposure to harmful chemicals, symptoms can take anywhere from 20-50 years to occur. Therefore, the continuation of this act is extremely necessary. Given the long latency period of such diseases, first-responders and victims may – unfortunately – need this act more in the future than they need it now.

It’s impossible to ensure that fires won’t happen. Because of this, the U.S. federal, state, and local governments plan for the unlikely event of a building catching on fire. Fire departments are positioned strategically around our towns and cities – and fire hydrants are installed on every street corner.

Just as there is a plan in place to stop the spread of fire, there should also be a proper plan in place that addresses the health concerns that first-responders face in the wake of a disaster such as 9/11. It is oversight not to consider this. It is a cruel irony that this lack of consideration harms those who work to protect us in moments of danger.

The needless exposure to harmful chemicals is something that is within America’s power to prevent, and this is why Jon Stewart stood side-by-side with hundreds of firefighters on Capitol Hill, lobbying for legislation that addresses this on-going health concern.

The Legacy of Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart’s vocal support of 9/11 firefighters and first-responders should come as no surprise. Throughout his career, he’s been a prominent advocate for many disenfranchised and underrepresented groups. Stewart’s role in society demonstrates the political climate of today, where comedians are often the ones whom people look to for guidance.

Ever since Jon Stewart’s reign as host of The Daily Show began in 1999, he has blurred the lines between satire, humor, and journalism. As result of this blurring, a new genre was born. In 2003, when asked whether he was practicing a new form of journalism, Stewart replied:

“Well then that either speaks to the sad state of comedy or the sad state of news. I can’t figure out which one. I think, honestly, we’re practicing a new form of desperation. Where we just are so inundated with mixed messages from the media and from politicians that we’re just trying to sort it out for ourselves.”

What may have originated in desperation has since become a new form of empowerment and human connection. The unique approach Stewart pioneered is not only a refreshing addition to modern reporting, but has increasingly become a vital component in understanding and navigating today’s media-saturated world. Stewart’s ability to comment on current issues with humor, compassion, and intelligence was more than welcomed by many viewers.

Jon Stewart Stands His Ground

Perhaps Stewart himself would be the first to admit that his presence in D.C. as a lobbyist and a celebrity spokesperson should not be something that is necessary. Perhaps he’d be the first to admit that it shouldn’t have had to come to this. James Zagroda – the New York City Police Officer who worked over 450 hours in rescue operations at Ground Zero, and who died in 2006 at the age of 34 from a debilitating respiratory disease – shouldn’t have had to plead for care and compassion from his federal government 10 years ago. There should’ve been no doubt that he’d receive the healthcare he deserved.

As of today, the bill expired nearly 1 month ago and the fight for its passing continues in Congress. Until it is reauthorized and signed back in as law, it will serve as a cruel reminder that, in today’s world, victims are often left without a voice – and that many in Congress see American heroes as “expendable.” Until this mindset changes, these American heroes will continue to suffer from the lingering effects of the courageous actions they took on our behalf.

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