Fallen Hero, Fuzzy Facts

Soldier-turned-cop-turned-firefighter-turned-soldier Christian Engeldrum certainly earned his eulogies in the city tabs on Wednesday, spread across the covers of the Post and the Daily News, with a combined five full pages of coverage in the two papers. There was additional coverage on Thursday, with the news that Engeldrum's widow is pregnant splashed across the Post's front page.

Some might take exception to Engeldrum's being singled out of the 1,255 Americans (14 of them from New York City) who have died in Iraq. But as an ex-cop and firefighter, he obviously had a special connection here. One could also say glorifying his death obscured the deep problems threatening all U.S. soldiers in Iraq, but good taste keeps politics out of obituaries. (The problems were made clear elsewhere: November tied the record for bloodiest month, and the Pentagon increased U.S. troop strength by roughly 12,000.)

However, one facet of the coverage may have gone off track. That's when the tabs connected the World Trade Center attacks, where Engeldrum bravely served, to the war in Iraq, where he bravely died.

In its lead editorial on Wednesday, the Post said: "There is a direct line between the tragedy inflicted upon New York on 9-11 and the battle for sustained democracy being waged in Iraq today."

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A Wednesday Daily News piece by Michael Daly about the scene at Engeldrum's firehouse read: "The wind rippled the bunting marking the loss of a 344th member of the FDNY in a war that seems to claim only the very best." That was a reference to the 343 FDNY members who perished on 9-11. A firefighter, obviously entitled to his opinion and his grief, was quoted earlier in Daly's piece making that connection. But Daly repeated it.

You could read either piece as connecting stability in Iraq to less terrorism everywhere, which is a reasonable belief. Or you could read them as saying Iraq was invaded to get the terrorists behind the 9-11 attacks, which is a canard.

Neither piece tells a lie. Rather, it's the fuzziness that's the problem, because the same ambiguous language (used by Bush administration officials and the media at large) has contributed to a climate in which polls show a startling percentage of Americans believe Saddam Hussein was connected to the 9-11 attacks.

The 9-11 Commission's report should have cleared up the confusion. Yes, Osama bin Laden had contacts with Iraq. And yep, Iraqi agents showed some interest in a deal. But the commission concluded that, "to date we have seen no evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship. Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with Al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States."

This fact doesn't subtract from Engeldrum's heroism, and that's just the point: Hinting at a 9-11–Iraq connection doesn't add to his laurels, either. It just obscures the complex world in which he served and sacrificed.

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