Yesterday Governor Pataki killed the International Freedom Center, a project I have been working on for over a year. This facility, part of the original master plan for Ground Zero and once championed by Pataki, was intended as a complement to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum also to be built on the original parcel of land that the towers occupied.
The idea was simple and highly-regarded: to respond to great tragedy with great hope, to show the world that freedom is the opposite of the forces that led to the destruction of the World Trade Center. The IFC had wide bipartisan support. It was led by a personal friend of the President’s and advised by academics on both sides of the political spectrum as well as relatives of victims. The governor, the mayor, the LMDC, and everyone else directly involved in the rebuilding of Ground Zero was pleased with this approach.
Until a grieving a family member with a political agenda provided an argument that set the conversative blogosphere and news networks aflame. She claimed that presenting multiple perspectives on freedom — what it means to different people, how it is struggled for, how the ideal of freedom guides and misguides our nation and the world — that this multitude of voices would end up “blaming” America for 9/11. Her rhetorical trick (which the right lapped up and spewed out again and again) was to conflate a multiplicity of perspectives on freedom with a multiplicity of perspectives on what happened on that horrible day. These are fundamentally different things. Yet, the distinction was lost on the grass-roots bloggers who galvanized victim’s relatives and first responder organizations in NYC to their cause, pouring salt in the open wounds of these family members by telling them that the IFC would dishonor their deceased loved ones.
Soon the IFC was labelled as anti-American. And the press loved that. The screech of the media feedback loop made this falsehood louder and louder. The Bush Administration early on left it to NYC to decide on the IFC fate. Pataki waffled and made the IFC (and Drawing Center — a one-time tenant of the same space) promise never to do anything that would “denigrate America”. The IFC agreed to this. Yet, Pataki still killed the Center, apparently having made up his mind anyway.
If this has taught us anything it is that emotions are still extremely raw — too raw for reasoned, non-politicized discussion — when it comes to the terrorist acts of 9/11. (Even the Flight 93 Memorial in Pennsylvania finds itself embroiled in a controversy of dubious merit.) Though the wounds will never heal for many people, the passing of time will permit a critical distance from which to judge the various proposals for how to treat the space. But there is no time. Leaving Ground Zero unbuilt temporarily seems like a weak position to politicians. So Pataki has put an end to the IFC and suggested that the memorial museum, currently underground, will occupy the building once designed for it. Meanwhile, across the street, an additional 300,000 square feet of retail space has been approved.
The International Freedom Center would have been a noble response to the vile acts of people imprisoned by perverse conviction. Now, if the “Take Back The Memorial” groups have their way visitors to Ground Zero will be treated to the twin horrors of an oversized memorial devoted to graphically retelling the story of Sept. 11 and a monstrous retail mall begging for their tourist dollars.
Are crushed fire trucks festooned with American flags really an appropriate way to memorialize what happened that day? Wasn’t more assaulted that day than people and property?