It would be easy to dismiss the people who rallied Monday against the proposed International Freedom Center at the World Trade Center site as the “Blameless America” crowd, merely the ideological opposites of the museum backers whom they were denouncing. But it’s not as simple as that.
Their argument is that the Freedom Center has been “stolen” by people bent on excoriating American foreign policy over the ashes of the innocent dead. That’s what Debra Burlingame, who galvanized opposition with a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, claims has happened.
“The IFC’s list of those who are shaping or influencing the content and programming for their Ground Zero exhibit includes a Who’s Who of the human rights, Guantánamo-obsessed world,” Burlingame wrote. She added: “The so-called lessons of September 11 should not be force-fed by ideologues hoping to use the memorial site as nothing more than a powerful visual aid to promote their agenda.”
Burlingame says politics does not belong at the WTC site, but she’s no stranger to the politics of 9-11. In the three-plus years since her brother’s death in the attacks, she has applauded Condi Rice’s testimony and denounced those who heckled Rudy Giuliani at the 9-11 Commission, lent support to the Iraq war, spoken at the Republican National Convention, appeared with President Bush on the campaign trail, and backed his use of 9-11 images in TV ads.
As proof of the Freedom Center’s blame-America bent, Burlingame cites the presence of ACLU head Anthony Romero, Human Rights First’s Michael Posner, and left-wing Columbia professor Eric Foner on the roster of Freedom Center scholars and advisers. But there are at least 35 people on that list, including Medal of Honor recipient Bob Kerrey (a member of the 9-11 Commission and early supporter of the Iraq war) and David Fischer, a Brandeis professor with a recent book on George Washington’s military tactics. The chairman of the Freedom Center is Tom Bernstein, who—Burlingame points out—is on the board of Human Rights First, a leading advocate for terrorism detainees held by the United States. But Bernstein is also a friend of Dubya’s, a former partner with the prez in the Texas Rangers, and the man who late last year gave Bush a book by Natan Sharansky—favored luminary of the neocons.
Plans for the Freedom Center are in nascent stages but are likely to include topics like “the greatest generation,” the triumph of conscience over slavery, and MLK’s fight against Jim Crow. Fischer says museum curators who’ve consulted him were interested in some of his research on freedom symbols, like the “Don’t Tread on Me” snake and the Liberty Bell. “There is nothing here that is a central expression of hostility to American values,” he tells the Voice. “Quite the reverse.”
But for some victims’ relatives, what is ultimately exhibited in the museum is only one facet of the objection. “The first thing you need to ask,” says Monica Iken, who lost her husband in the attacks, “is why it needs to be right there.”
The presence of anything not directly related to 9-11 on their sacred site puzzles and offends some victims’ kin. For them, it’s the latest chapter of the saga over what a ground zero memorial should look like, in which family members have had to fight to preserve the footprints of the towers and to have access to the bedrock in which the buildings stood.
“The LMDC [Lower Manhattan Development Corporation], Governor Pataki, and the Port Authority—they have made a concerted effort to make ground zero about everything else but what happened on 9-11,” Sally Regenhard, the mother of a slain firefighter, tells the Voice. “This just puts the cap on the simmering, boiling issues we’ve had with the system from day one: Get your commercial interests down there, build over the footprints, make everybody forget what happened.” The motive, she suspects, is money—the LMDC wants to attract visitors, and a site devoted solely to a tragedy just won’t get the traffic.
The Freedom Center will be one tenant in a cultural building of less than 250,000 square feet at the northeast corner of the memorial quadrant, the tree-filled area that will be dominated by the “Reflecting Absence” memorial filling the footprints of the towers. The actual 9-11 memorial center will be underground and comprise over 100,000 square feet of space. But plans and price estimates are not yet finalized. The difference in size between the Freedom Center and the memorial center bothers some families. That the bulk of memorial material will be below the surface also irks them. But that location was necessitated, backers of the Freedom Center say, by the families’ desire to have access to bedrock.
Space for a museum building has been reserved since Daniel Libeskind’s original master plan. The Freedom Center was selected to fill the space last June, its purpose “telling freedom’s story, inspiring visitors to appreciate it on a personal level by looking at the countless individual women and men around the world who have made a difference.” People associated with the Freedom Center say its aim is to derive something positive out of the grief and terror the site will always represent. That’s why they plan seminars and debates (although the Freedom Center insists there’ll be no discussion of rationalizing 9-11 itself) and will encourage visitors to volunteer for one of a range of nonprofit groups.
“I’ve always been supportive of having some form of what I would call a living memorial or something that engages people positively,” says Tom Roger, whose daughter, Jean, was an attendant on American Airlines Flight 11. “After they’ve visited the site and paid their respects, to me it makes sense to take people in a sort of different direction.” Roger says he thinks the planners of the Freedom Center are too ideologically diverse for the museum to espouse a left-wing agenda.
Some family members, however, are anxious that visitors will fail to grasp the linkages that the Freedom Center will make between 9-11 and struggles for freedom in other places and times. They are frightened by any attempt to introduce complexity to the site. Burlingame contends that people will be confused when they look down at the WTC site from the Freedom Center and, instead of seeing a crushed fire truck, view exhibits on Chilean refugees and Chinese dissidents who fought for freedom. “Americans do not want a sacred memorial to be about causes. They want it to be about people,” Burlingame says. “September 11 was an atrocity in itself. Is American blood so cheap that that is not enough to tell the story of man’s inhumanity to man?”
The question, though, is how that story would read, a point that divides even the people who oppose the Freedom Center. Like every argument about 9-11, the fight over the Freedom Center is about simplicity versus complexity—the big, intricate picture opposed to a broad-stroke portrait of horror and heroism.
Burlingame, for one, sees 9-11 as a moment of quintessential American character. After learning that her brother Charles “Chic” Burlingame was on the plane that rammed into the Pentagon, she says, “I looked back at the television and I saw what my fellow New Yorkers were doing. It was black, white, young, old, and it was a picture of America. That was the story of that day.”
But Regenhard says the failures in planning before the attack, and in radio communication, and in emergency management on the day of the disaster, demand mention. The museum, she says, “should be about accountability and responsibility of government, which is a huge lesson of 9-11.”
A host of family organizations, like September’s Mission and Advocates for a 9-11 Fallen Heroes Memorial, are protesting the Freedom Center, but other groups take no position. September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, on the other hand, will soon press for a greater theme of forgiveness at the site.