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Friday, September 05, 2003


Choking on The Truth

The Environmental Protection Agency’s first statements following the collapse of the World Trade Center reassured the public regarding the safety of the air around Ground Zero. Apparently, however, when the EPA declared that the air was “safe” to breathe on September 18, 2001, it lacked sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket — and irresponsible — assertion. At the time, air-monitoring data were lacking for several pollutants, including particulate matter and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Furthermore, it seems that the White House Council on Environmental Quality (an oxymoronic body, if there ever was one, under this administration) influenced the information that the EPA initially released to the public, taking advantage of a “collaboration process” to “persuade” the agency to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones about the air quality around Ground Zero. Finally, it also appears as if other considerations, such as “national security” and the desire to reopen Wall Street as soon as possible, also played a role in the EPA’s early announcements. As of this date, the full extent of public exposure to pollutants resulting from the collapse of the World Trade Center is unknown.

The recent release of the evaluation report by the EPA’s inspector general on the agency’s response to September 11 came and went rather quietly. The report’s findings that, in the aftermath of the disaster and under the “guidance” of the White House, the EPA misled the public regarding the dangers of contamination has received very little media attention, and it has been quickly replaced as a front-page news item, if it ever was one. Yes, Senators Hillary Clinton and Joseph Lieberman demanded a thorough investigation into the government’s handling of the situation, but both politicians and public quickly redirected their attention to other seemingly more important affairs. The exposure of thousands of rescue and construction workers, as well as lower Manhattan’s residents, to contaminated air seems not to be worth much ink or media attention.

Undoubtedly, we as a people continue to remain hesitant of criticizing any aspect of the government’s response to September 11. It is as if any form of criticism itself somehow diminishes the horror of the destruction. Perhaps public and media are willing to justify the government’s handling of these early reports on air quality as the result of the chaotic conditions that followed the attack. What is one to make, however, of the ludicrous claim that EPA statements on the safety of the air were motivated by “national security concerns” and the desire to get Wall Street going again?

It is as if deception — and, worst of all, self-deception — has become the law of the land. Perhaps the public has just come to expect the manipulation of the truth by this administration, viewing the EPA’s response as just another item in a long list that includes weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s relationship with Al Qaeda, and Iraq’s acquisition of uranium from Niger. Anything goes with this administration, so what’s the point of making a fuss about the EPA report? Although such an approach demands tremendous cynicism, personally, I would prefer cynicism to the apathy that I believe motivates the public stance toward politics today. Cynicism at least implies an understanding that things are beyond one’s control. Apathy, however, is just that: the mark of indifference and disinterest. From the Bush administration’s justification of the war against Iraq to the record numbers of unemployed, the public — and, of course, the media that are supposed to be its faithful watchdogs — have presumably decided that they’ve got other things on their mind. Meanwhile, the president’s high approval ratings stay more or less where they are.

In six days, the nation will remember and mourn once more the morning of September 11. We will praise, again, the heroism of the rescue workers, and the president will use this horrendous attack, again, to justify our current foreign policy. We will celebrate the city’s spirit as expressed in the rebuilding efforts and plans for downtown, and then quickly proceed with the respective routines of our lives. So, two years after the fact, the attack has become an abstraction, while we hardly even remember the thousands of individuals who perished that day. Indeed, the president’s speech on the ruins of the World Trade Center a few days after the attack was indicative of how we had already begun to lose sight of the victims as we increasingly focused on the spectacle.

In addition to being a co-founder of, Stelios Vasilakis is a classical philologist and a former associate of the Speros Basil Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism.
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