11/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

9/11's Dark Heritage

The September 11 commemorations have increasingly become a family affair. The rest of the country seems to have moved on, leaving New Yorkers to hold the ceremonies and revisit their memories.

Perhaps that's inevitable. And on one count, it's the way we ought to want it. The whole world was watching back in 2004 - that would be the year the cornerstone for the Freedom Tower was laid. It's not necessarily a bad thing that the crowd will be smaller when we gather this year to admire the Rising Beyond Sidewalk Level of the Structure That Will Be the Freedom Tower Someday Or Maybe Not.

We've made few deadlines and kept precious few promises in the years since the World Trade Center fell.

As things stand now, the memorial to the victims of the terrorist attack is scheduled to open in 2011. The much-debated museum is supposed to be ready to receive visitors in 2012, although what it will ultimately wind up displaying is anybody's guess. The Freedom Tower and the transportation hub are supposed to follow within a year or two.

A recent poll found that 60 percent of New Yorkers don't believe the tower and the memorial will be open by the current deadlines. The only surprising thing is that 28 percent of the people questioned actually thought the Port Authority and its many partners could make it in under the wire.

Control over the Ground Zero projects has always been divided. Developer Larry Silverstein owned the much-leveraged lease to the World Trade Center when the towers fell, and he is determined to be the one to rebuild the towers. But Silverstein is equally insistent that somebody else pay the bill.

The Port Authority, which is supposed to be in charge of the whole project, is a slow-moving bureaucracy with control divided between New York and New Jersey. If you want evidence of its ability to handle complicated problems quickly and efficiently, take a look at the ruined Deutsche Bank building which it now owns, and still has not managed to get demolished after all these years.

At the center of all the squabbling is the governor of New York, the one person who might be able to prod everyone into concerted action. Most people think George Pataki tried in his own way, but unfortunately his own way was lethargic. Then Eliot Spitzer came and went. Now there's David Paterson, who can't even get his own office under control.

In retrospect, maybe we demanded too much. There's no reason we have to build five huge office buildings in the middle of a collapse in the commercial real estate market. And the theory that there had to be a tower exactly 1,776 feet tall, or the terrorists won seems much less impressive now than it did six or seven years ago.

The terrorists lost. We're still here; the city endures. The wounds we suffer right now are far more the product of the irrational exuberance of investment bankers than religious fanatics.

But eight years after the tragedy, there still isn't even a memorial. That's the kind of factoid that makes you stop in your tracks.

And the buildings are only one part of September 11's unfinished business.

The people who ran down to the site to volunteer to help on 9/11/01 - the construction workers and the emergency responders - are continuing to suffer from ailments that almost surely were caused by their long exposure to toxic air at the site.

This is the dark heritage of 9/11. Whenever we gather to remember, we celebrate the responders' heroism. But we still haven't quite acknowledged that our leaders, from Rudy Giuliani on down, never adequately warned the men and women working around the smoldering site that the place where they were flinging themselves into duty was a toxic landmine.

The Victims Compensation Fund that was set up by the federal government after the disaster worked well, but it stopped accepting applications in 2003, before many of the men and women who were disabled realized that the respiratory problems they were having weren't just symptoms of an allergy or long-running flu. Eleven thousand of them are currently suing the city and the construction contractors. But this is not the kind of situation you want to see settled through lengthy, bitter court suits.

The government needs to step up to the plate, reopen the fund, and show it's willing to compensate the disabled and sometimes dying men and women of Ground Zero. This isn't the kind of action we're supposed to take grudgingly, because a judge tells us to.

It won't be all that long before that tenth anniversary of 9/11. I'm willing to hazard a guess that the memorial still won't be completed. Most of the construction plans for Lower Manhattan will still be gauzy promises. The city can wait, perhaps not patiently. But we have to deal with the human part of the equation. The people who answered the call on that terrible day need to be taken care of.

And every politician who shows up on September 11 looking sad should be able to tell us what he/she did to make that happen.