Monday, February 16, 2009

The Firefighters' Response

"To the IAFF and to the families of the 344 fire fighters who gave their lives so others might live, it is no joking matter."
(Harold Schaitberger, then-General President of the International Association of Firefighters)

Some follow-up on the Joan Rivers thing from the previous post, which seems to have sparked more than a little interest...

The remarks in question - which referred to the widows of firefighters killed in the 9-11 collapse of the World Trade Center - were from a tour Rivers was doing in England in early 2003, barely a year and a half after the attacks. I've looked for a transcription of Rivers' routine so readers could have it for reference but so far I've not found one. A few sources described portions - how disappointed the widows would have been if it turned out their husbands were alive and they had to give back the large checks Rivers (erroneously) said they received, how they were better off without having to deal with their husbands' shortcomings anymore, etc. - but nothing that described the routine in its entirety.

I never suggested, of course, that Ms. Rivers should be arrested, nor censored, simply shot at from an airplane. We live in America, and this is not the first reminder we've had that freedom of speech comes with a dark, unfortunate side that we must allow. I am aware that, for better or worse, publicly ridiculing innocent victims and going for easy shock-laughs at their expense, though reprehensible, is legal. It's done in school-yards by still-developing minds all the time.

As a professional clown, I'll also take difference with any suggestion I don't have a sense of humor, or that the one I have is too high-brow. Ask any rubber-chicken I own. They'll tell you.

I respect the point-of-view of readers who disagree with me as to the appropriateness of Rivers' remarks. (Remember, these are not simply jokes about death, which are often as useful as they are funny. These are jokes about people who died violent deaths because they ran into a burning building to save people after terrorists attacked. Call me crazy, but I think there's a difference.) In fact, the advent of the Internet even makes it possible for anyone who feels Rivers' remarks were not cruel and inappropriate to express that opinion directly to the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) at:

Before you do, though, you may want to consider what their then-General President, Mr. Harold Schaitberger, wrote shortly after Rivers' ridicule.


WASHINGTON - "Comedian Joan Rivers' attempts to find humor in the catastrophic loss that our members and their loved ones suffered on September 11 is a new low and cannot be tolerated.

"For those of you who may have missed the news reports, she has a bit in her current show in England that openly mocks the relatives of our brothers. Her new show, "Broke And Alone In London," makes light of the widows whose husbands were killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center. It's hard to understand, given that she lost 11 friends herself that day.

"Despite negative reaction in England, she is vowing to keep the sick joke in her act, and I'm sure she's just waiting for the backlash so she can jump-start her career. Well, here it is.

"First, let me be clear to Ms. Rivers that our widows would give anything to have their husbands back. The loss they suffered in an instant was total and profound, and no efforts by anyone can make that pain go away. But, as you have proven, it can be made more painful with a resentful remark or a caustic comment.

"Second, these courageous women have received very little in real terms in exchange for what they have lost. The financial burdens of losing a primary breadwinner, feeding, clothing and educating hundreds of fatherless children, and planning for decades of your own life without your loved one are overwhelming. Ms. Rivers should check her facts. The widows and families haven't received anything near $5 million, but even if they had, it would not equal what they have lost.

"Third, and last, Ms. Rivers has attacked the very symbols of this proud nation's response to terrorism. If she had been in the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, the New York fire fighters - my members - would have sacrificed anything to get her out alive. They would do the same for her now, even knowing how little she thinks of their devotion to her safety. This is a nation at war, and Ms. Rivers' comments strike at the heart of our unified front against the threats that face us. Maybe it doesn't feel as real in London, but I can tell you it feels real to my 250,000 members protecting North America.

"I am sorry that Ms. Rivers has chosen to find humor in our tragic and devastating loss. To the IAFF and to the families of the 344 fire fighters who gave their lives so others might live, it is no joking matter."


oldhousegal said...

You are right, allowing all people freedom of speech goes hand in hand with the possibility that we will hear something offensive. And what's offensive depends on the person and the time. Just think, Lenny Bruce was persecuted (and arrested)for stuff we'd hardly give a second thought to today. I would be offended by what Joan said because it's hurtful to people who already have been hurt enough. But I'd be more offended if someone tried to stop her from saying what's on her mind because who knows, maybe someone's offended by what's on my mind!

Julie said...

I never liked her and now even less.

Angie said...

A late oment as usual - wouldn't be me otherwise would it?

On behalf of all decent, right-minded English people (that's most of us), I want to apologise to all you American people that Joan Rivers was able to get away with saying what she did on our soil and over our air-waves.

love, Angie, xx