Fear Trumps Freedom

There is no room for freedom at Ground Zero. Or at least that’s the message from Governor George Pataki’s September 30 eviction of the International Freedom Center from the World Trade Center memorial museum.

Prodded by controversy incited by the families of 9/11 victims, who felt that the center would denigrate the sanctity of the memorial space, Pataki caved under political pressure and pulled the plug on a cultural institution that just one year earlier he envisioned providing “vibrant content…on the inalienable rights of humanity.” Back then, the idea of a bold forum for freedom of expression was widely embraced as representative of the mission of the various organizations working to rebuild the site, including the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the WTC Memorial Foundation, which includes prominent cultural figures, financiers, and some 9/11 kin, and even the 9/11 Families for a Safe and Strong America.

Until, that is, WTC Memorial Foundation board member Debra Burlingame responded to a proposed exhibition of the Freedom Center, an historical tour of the struggle for freedom that would include the Third Reich’s Final Solution and pictures of the torture of Iraqi soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison. In a June Wall Street Journal editorial, Burlingame, whose brother, Charles, died piloting the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, politicized the proceedings by presenting a list of left-leaning IFC patrons, calling the center “a slanted history lesson, a didactic lecture on the meaning of liberty in a post-9/11 world,” and claiming that “Ground Zero has been stolen, right from under our noses.” A firestorm erupted, with the 9/11 families rallying for eviction and more sober voices calling for discussion. Barbara Walters resigned from the WTC Memorial Foundation directors’ board in the tempest. Editorials cried foul along party lines. Finally Pataki, speaking mere hours before a scheduled public forum on the IFC crisis, ended all speculation with a late September eviction.

It is not so much the eviction that vexes, regardless of one’s opinion on the appropriateness of the site, it was the pre-emptive directive delivered as from on high. If the International Freedom Center, which, let’s admit it, was likely to encounter controversy in the future, had been 86’d after lengthy and well-reasoned discussion, then so be it. But this was practically despotic.

Days later the LMDC board of directors held a press conference to vent their frustration to Pataki, saying they had no power to make decisions, that the pre-emptive eviction was “fundamentally wrong,” and that the “LMDC has been deeply wounded here.” Fed up with their sudden impotence, not to mention the rabble-rousing Burlingame, Agnes Gund, president emerita of MoMA, and Henry Kravits, investment banker and arts patron, resigned from the WTC Memorial Foundation board soon after.

There is no question that the decision-making process has been impeded and that freedom, which should be fundamental to Ground Zero institutions, is losing ground. The LMDC website displays a WTC memorial mission statement that, after pleas to appropriately honor and remember the heroes and victims, calls for a memorial that will “reaffirm respect for life, strengthen our resolve to preserve freedom, and inspire an end to hatred, ignorance, and intolerance.” (The mission statement can be read here: http://www.renewnyc.com/Memorial/memmission.asp.) Yet with a McCarthyesque accusation of anti-Americanism the political ground beneath Ground Zero shifted, hatred reared its ugly head, and freedom lost out to intolerance.

Somebody should stand up to the politically unstoppable families of 9/11 victims, if only to lend balance to the battle. Sure, these mourners deserve to grieve and to be respected with a memorial that appropriately honors their lost loved ones, but they certainly have not earned final approval for the entire 6.5 acre memorial quadrant. And pulling out the trump card of political bias in a country at war—Burlingame’s editorial began with Marines returned from Iraq paying a visit to Ground Zero—is in very poor taste. [Perhaps it will be Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who last week committed to a bigger role in the rebuilding, who will halt their advance. He is nominally Republican, so is likely to be accepted as one of their own, and during this mayoral campaign would undoubtedly want to be seen as a mayor who gets things done. But Bloomberg will never be seriously threatened by his opponent, Fernando Ferrero, and is therefore unlikely to take a risky stance against the 9/11 kin.] New York Press called this bereaved faction “our own, homegrown mullahs,” and indeed their constant politicizing of anything to do with Ground Zero and September 11 brings to mind the closed-mindedness of religious fundamentalists.

Think back to September, 2001, when the Bush administration turned its attention to Afghanistan and its ruling Taliban as the most obvious culprit of the attacks on New York and Washington, primarily for their hiding of Osama bin Laden and direct support for Al Qaeda. U.S. forces quickly attacked and ousted the Taliban, but not before they made their mark by blowing the world’s two largest Buddha statues, in Bamiyan, to kingdom come earlier that year. UNESCO-designated heritage sites, the statues were cultural landmarks, and their destruction was widely mourned.

With the eviction of the Freedom Center, Pataki, Burlingame, and others have now displayed a similar state-sanctioned intolerance. Both sites were meant to represent defining qualities of our respective cultures and identities, and both lost out to prevailing political winds. Four years after 9/11 it is disheartening to find the anti-freedom ethos of our attackers and their patrons taking root where it struck, here on American soil.

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