A coalition of 9/11 families' groups held a press conference at the World Trade Center today to call for exactly what I hoped they would when I spoke with Debra Burlingame last week: Do not build the International Freedom Center here. Do not distract from the 9/11 memorial and bring politics and polemics to this place. Let the memorial speak for itself. . .The New York Post was also there.
The families, always with the pictures of their lost loved ones, began changing: "9/11 memorial only" and "take back the memorial." And then a few family members spoke.
One appealed to the American people to join with them and take back the memorial. Anther said that lessons of a freedom center would be fine, "but not here, not on sacred ground."
"Nobody is coming to this place to learn about Ukranian democracy and be inspired by the courage of Tibetan monks," he said.
Another spoke for many when he said that the remains of his family member were never found. "We have no place to go," he said, "we have no place to grieve" -- other than this place.
The sister of a firefighter pointed to her 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter and asked whether the lesson of what is to be built at the World Trade Center will be that "9/11 is something to be ashamed of."
"We will make sure this site is not violated a second, time," she said.
Another warned that the Freedom Center will make the site a "magnet for protesters."
"The IFC msut go elsewhere," he said.
Edie Lutnick, sister of the Cantor Fitzgerald heads, one of whom died, said she was not comfortable speaking and the first time she did so was at her brother's funeral. But she was most eloquent here, thanking Americans for their shows of support -- their children's letters, their flags, their quilts -- and said this was not the families' tragedy but our tragedy.
"Now we have another tragedy -- forgetfulness. 9/11 is being buried underground."
The event did what it was supposed to do: It brought out the press and made the International Freedom Center an issue.
[Debra] Burlingame, a director of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, specifically charged that Tofel and others are planning to host exhibits at Ground Zero devoted to such wholly off-topic issues as the alleged "genocide" of Americans Indians, the fight against slavery, the Holocaust and the Soviet Gulag.The Post article is pretty heated, but the point is essentially the same as that made by many others, including me. Burlingame has set up a new website that proclaims:"Take back the Memorial Because a 'blame America' monument honors no one. No politics at Ground Zero. Period." Setting whether or not the IFC is going to be a "blame America" memorial or not (as a historian, I have more confidence--hopefully not misplaced--than Ms. Burlingame), I heartily agree with the "No politics at Ground Zero" line.
Worthy subjects for study, each and every one — but not at Ground Zero.
Tofel, for his part, insists that the controversy is all about nothing.
But when Cavuto asked, specifically, whether the museum would feature "atrocities Americans have committed," Tofel repeatedly refused a direct answer.
"Atrocities is such a loaded word," he stammered. . .
. . . Real Americans, after all, have no trouble recalling that Ground Zero is the site of an unspeakable atrocity committed against them. They'll wonder by what perverted logic is it appropriate to use the spot to dredge up shameful, painful episodes in American history that have nothing to do with 9/11.
Yet that is transparently Tofel's plan.
Slavery in America, for example, "probably" would be focused on, he said, because a key goal is to "inspire an end to hatred, ignorance and intolerance. . .
"The International Freedom Center will host debates and note points of view with which you — and I — will disagree," Tofel wrote in The Wall Street Journal.
Like, whether America is sufficiently sensitive to other cultures?
Whether Muslims — and non-Americans generally — need to protect themselves from U.S. "hegemony"?
To me, this acute issue brings up a much larger one. What role should history play at a memorial? Has there been a conflation of memorial and history on this scale before? Gettysburg would count, I suppose as would various other battlefields. Yet, what they have in common is that the history presented is directly related to the event which is simultaneously being memorialized. I haven't seen many other historian/bloggers comment on this topic. I wonder why? I'm truly not implying anything, I'm just genuinely curious. Do any other history bloggers have any thoughts?
A commenter has pointed me to a video of a debate between Burlingame and Tofel that can be seen here.
Additionally, the Village Voice also reported on the rally.
. . . 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 [the International Freedom Center] 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. . .
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.