Sunday, June 11, 2006

Debra Burlingame Asks: Where is the Ground Zero Memorial?

Earlier this week at, Debra Burlingame asked where is the long-awaited memorial at Ground Zero of the World Trade Center? Burlingame's brother, Charles "Chic" Burlingame, the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, died on 9/11 when terrorists crashed his jet into the Pentagon. Burlingame became famous as a patriotic pugilist in the fight to appropriately honor at Ground Zero the memories of those who died on our "day of infamy" in 2001. Her Wall Street Journal expose on the infiltration of the organizing committee of the 9/11 International Freedom Center by left-wing professors and human rights activists ultimately led to the removal of the IFC from the World Trade Center Memorial by Governor George Pataki in September of 2005.

In this week's essay, she suggests that billions of dollars of federal relief aid have been misallocated in the rebuilding effort, with large sums of relief cash going either to profitable corporations, those with no plans to leave Lower Manhattan, or those not centrally located in the recovery zone:

Mr. Bloomberg talks about a "sensible" approach to Ground Zero rebuilding, but has declined to fully explain his allocation of $650 million dollars worth of Liberty Bonds to construct the Bank of America tower in midtown, an allocation that competes with downtown redevelopment; or why he awarded $114 million in Liberty Bonds to the Ratner office tower--in Brooklyn.

The mayor has suggested locating the World Trade Center Museum in the controversial Freedom Tower, declaring it "a good use of that lobby." To put the story of that day in another commercial office tower is an insult to the memory of the 3,000 who died and to the thousands who barely escaped. Would the Holocaust Museum be treated as an afterthought and crammed into such a space? Moreover, why would any commercial tenant be attracted to a building that will be the destination of as many as 20,000 to 30,000 tourists per day?

The mayor's proposal was promptly embraced by New York's cultural elite--the same folks who were despondent over the loss, last fall, of the International Freedom Center and its slavery exhibits. The New York Times editorial page went so far as to suggest that the 9/11 museum is not really necessary since "most of us remember that day very clearly." The same paper, in contrast, published six hyperventilating editorials last year, telling us that the Freedom Center must be built on sacred ground to provide the memorial with "historical context," albeit one that didn't include a word about terrorism.

Interestingly, the no-museum proponents have uniformly invoked the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington as an example of a simple and appropriate remembrance. While it eventually became accepted as a locus of healing, "The Wall" was controversial when it opened in 1982 in no small part because of its failure to tell the story of the war. Jan Scruggs, founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation, recognizes that when the contemporaries of that war are gone, the 58,000 names carved in granite will not resonate with future generations. To remedy this, he sought and won congressional approval to build a museum that will tell the story of the war and those who fought it.

Ironically, the designer of the Vietnam memorial, Maya Lin, was a member of the World Trade Center Memorial jury and the most vocal advocate of the design that was eventually chosen, Michael Arad's "Reflecting Absence." Like Ms. Lin's Wall, Mr. Arad's design, consisting of reflecting pools and waterfalls with a random listing of 3,000 victims' names, says nothing about how they died or the historic event it is memorializing. Without the museum there will be nothing on the plaza, not even the iconic artifacts, to tell future visitors what actually happened on 9/11.

But let us not get too carried away with comparisons to other memorials. The Vietnam War did not take place on that grassy mall in Washington. Ground Zero is a historic battleground; and of the 2,755 who died there, 1,157 were vaporized without a trace.

The American people intuitively understand what the New York intelligentsia does not. They already stream to Ground Zero in the tens of thousands, signing up for tours to stand and look at the iron fence of St. Paul's Church across the street, now stripped of the faded flags, the personal tokens of remembrance and the hand-lettered messages of sympathy that poured in from all over the world. They shell out countless thousands of dollars for picture books and postcards bearing the images of the twin towers from the ragtag vendors who line the site's perimeter.

It is this humble assortment of Ground Zero entrepreneurs who have shown City Hall's economic development experts that it is possible to blend commerce and commemoration. And the Memorial Museum will help restore a standard of dignity, which will be more about providing a lasting remembrance than making a quick buck.

Be sure to read the whole thing -- Debra Burlingame's a national treasure. Her interview with the Wall Street Journal from October 2005 is also highly worthwhile.

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