The Past, the Present, the Future

Editor’s Opinion | By BOBBY HALTON
Bobby Halton

Ernie DiMaria once described firefighting as “The War That Never Ends.” Before a battle or an attack, warriors engage in a variety of behaviors. The day before this battle on the “Apple,” the attackers did many things: They partied in defiance of their faith, they fornicated, some prayed—each did what they did for reasons only they could resolve. The defenders went about life also doing things that warriors under siege do: They attended gatherings, some readied equipment, some stood watch—the Apple had been under attack before and in a state of preparedness for a while.

From the early 1300s, the states of the Ottoman Empire, which, at its height, included Turkey; Greece; Bulgaria; Egypt; Hungary; Macedonia; Romania; Jordan; Palestine; Lebanon; Syria; some of Arabia; and the North African Barbary States of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, engaged in terroristic warfare and extortion. War is hell, but certain cultures and countries and systems have used horrific terror as a signature against all involved, not exclusive to the solider.

These Ottoman states continuously attacked and destroyed cities; captured and confiscated ships and cargo; and enslaved or ransomed citizens, crews, and passengers. The attacked states often paid large sums of money to these enslavers and destroyers, but that rarely appeased them for long. To quote Winston Churchill, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” 

A representative of the Ottoman Empire explained it this way: “That it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in the Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take prisoners, and that every Musselman (Muslim) who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”

As this day, September 11, 1683, broke, the attackers were about to be soundly defeated within the next 48 hours. Kara Mustafa, the Ottoman grand vizier, was attacking Vienna, the “Golden Apple” of the empire of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. They had tried before. The besieged had paid appeasement over and over. The attack came and the walls fell but not the city. Awaiting the right moment, Polish King John III Sobieski and some German princes had had enough; they combined forces and counterattacked and, 15 hours later, on September 12, the Ottomans were routed, Vienna was saved, and the Ottoman empire began to decline.


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When we were young and we experienced some type of significant loss or pain, we were told, “Time heals all wounds.” The folks who told us this were well-intentioned, albeit they lied. Some wounds never heal, some pain is forever. Growing up Irish, I was told that we forget everything except the grudge. So, I have a grudge. Many firefighters, Americans, and freedom-loving persons do—a grudge against tyranny and the intolerant. September 11, 2001, is the source of my generation’s grudge, seeded by ancient intolerance, evil, and hatred.

Marc Bloch was a French historian and World War II Resistance fighter who was killed while being held as a political prisoner by the intolerant Gestapo, an enforcement arm of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. In his book The Historian’s Craft, he wrote, “Misunderstanding of the present is the inevitable consequence of ignorance of the past. But a man may wear himself out just as fruitlessly in seeking to understand the past, if he is totally ignorant of the present….” 

DiMaria was right: Firefighting is a war that never ends. This month, we are 20 years from the day when the “Big Apple,” Washington, and the American way of life—western culture—were attacked, the day when 343 FDNY warriors fell who climbed those stairs; stood their ground; defended their city; and refused to be intimidated, be bullied, be enslaved, or back down. They and all those others who fought that attack died heroes, died righteous, and did not die in vain. The attack came; the walls fell, but not the city. The Big Apple is still free, our way of life still endures, and the enemy is in decline.

American firefighters gratefully embrace and understand the wisdom of our Founding Fathers. George Washington said, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.” We agree; we stand ready to defend our homes, communities, country, and way of life. Ben Franklin wrote on the absolute inalienable right of freedom of religion, “so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.” Firefighters understand the murderers of September 11 were not acting in accordance with their faith. They were practicing intolerance, exercising evil, and acting on misdirected anger and emotion.

Understanding, as best we can, all the complexities of modern life, firefighters still deeply mourn the loss of nearly 3,000 lives that infamous day. We cannot and will not condone the murder of even one; all life to us is precious. But those treasured FDNY 343 of September 11, whose legacy we will forever strive to be worthy of, you are truly the Bravest.

The free world will never forget their sacrifice. It will be recalled in story and lore to our young, along with the other great struggles against the intolerant and brutal. We hold them as dearly as we hold those who fought against the evils of the Jacobins, the Imperial Japanese, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, the Soviet Socialist Republic, the Chinese Communist Party, and countless other threats to decent and free peoples.

The question we all must, in homage, ask ourselves today is not, Will another attack come, and will we suffer? It will, and we will. The question is, Do we understand why we will refuse to stand aside and what we will suffer and possibly die for? For us, the American firefighters, in their memory we do stand. We know why, and we will never yield to or comply with evil. We will never forget.

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