Memorial Chauvinism

Memorial Chauvinism

The controversy over the World Trade Center cultural institutions is one more episode in a long, often bitter dispute over how 9/11 should be remembered and understood.


Speaking at a rally shortly before the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, New York Governor George Pataki told the crowd how moved he was by a new exhibit he had just helped unveil at Madame Tussaud’s in Times Square: a life-sized, carved-wax portrait of three firefighters raising the American flag out of the rubble at Ground Zero.

There are no plans to install a Madame Tussaud’s at the World Trade Center site, but on the eve of 9/11’s fourth anniversary, such imagery has come to define the sort of artistic expression and commentary allowable on this most sensitive piece of real estate. Since June a battle has been raging in lower Manhattan over the institutions slated for one of two cultural buildings called for in Daniel Liebeskind’s master plan for the WTC site–and, with Pataki following the charge (his eye on national office), the right wing is winning.

The building, a horizontal box of glass and wood designed by the Norwegian firm Snøhetta, will occupy a corner of Ground Zero’s “memorial quadrant,” alongside the “Reflecting Absence” memorial and a museum containing artifacts and other material documenting the events of 9/11 and the people who were killed that day. Intended to provide a buffer between the heart of the memorial and the quotidian traffic and commerce surrounding the site, the Snøhetta Cultural Center was to house two of four organizations chosen by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) last year from 113 applicants: the Drawing Center, an art museum based in SoHo since the late 1970s, and the brand-new International Freedom Center (IFC), a “multi-dimensional cultural institution combining history, education and engagement” that is the brainchild of Tom Bernstein, co-founder of Manhattan’s high-end athletics complex, Chelsea Piers. Working in a yin-yang relationship with “Reflecting Absence” and the 9/11 museum, which commemorate loss, the IFC is “meant to honor regeneration, the living, and the positive,” says Paula Grant Berry, the project’s vice chair, whose husband, David, perished in the south tower of the WTC.

The Snøhetta design was unveiled with much celebratory hoopla on May 19. But by mid-August, after a flurry of attacks, the building was being scaled down in size and in danger of having no tenants. The Drawing Center had been driven away by censorship-like demands for oversight after trumped-up accusations that several works displayed over its twenty-eight-year history were “un-American.” The IFC, meanwhile, was given until September 23 to provide detailed descriptions of its exhibits to assure the LMDC that it will forever heed a threat Pataki issued at a June press conference: “We will not tolerate anything on that site that denigrates America, denigrates New York or freedom, or denigrates the sacrifice and courage that the heroes showed on September 11.” In mid-August the Uniformed Firefighters Association, a union representing some 22,000 active and retired New York City firefighters, announced it was withdrawing its support for the WTC Memorial Foundation, which oversees and raises funds for the quadrant, because of the “unacceptable” cultural institutions.

While the assault on the Drawing Center (launched by New York’s Daily News) deployed the familiar artillery of the culture wars–misrepresentations of selective aspects of complex artworks–the battering of the IFC drew from the playbook of post-9/11 clampdowns on dissent. Not that IFC plans looked particularly radical. The idea for the museum came to Bernstein in the wake of 9/11 as he listened to George W. Bush deliver the 2002 State of the Union address. Appointed by Bush to the board of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, Bernstein is also a longtime board member of Human Rights First. He teamed up with Kunhardt Productions to develop the IFC, a celebration of the human aspiration to liberty.

But as Eric Foner, author of The Story of American Freedom and erstwhile IFC advisory board member, points out, “freedom–America’s defining characteristic–is a contested term. It does not have a fixed definition, but has been debated and struggled over through history.” Suggested IFC exhibits featuring Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Jones and Fannie Lou Hamer seem unobjectionable, if bland. Yet amid the take-no-prisoners atmosphere of the Administration, any effort to historicize the concept or to acknowledge America’s failures to live up to this ideal by reminding viewers of struggles like those for workers’ and civil rights is regarded as tantamount to siding with terrorists. The blindsiding attacks on the IFC have been vicious.

For many relatives of people lost on 9/11, the controversy over the WTC cultural institutions is one more episode in a long, often bitter dispute over how 9/11 should be remembered and understood. For ideologues eager to silence any criticism of Bush’s national security doctrine, it is a golden opportunity to seize more ground. And they have a powerful arsenal: two decades of a “victims’ rights” movement within the criminal justice system that has conferred a kind of moral invincibility on relatives of the murdered; relentless badgering by conservative cultural warriors that has made it easy to portray critical artists and scholars as suspect; and a right-wing media machine that can quickly quash nuance as it magnifies local disputes, Terri Schiavo-style, into a national manichean contest between patriots and traitors, adherents of moral values and downright barbarians.

The fracas erupted on June 8, when Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles Burlingame piloted the American Airlines plane that was crashed into the Pentagon, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal predicting that “rather than a respectful tribute to our individual and collective loss,” the IFC would present “a slanted history lesson…a heaping foreign policy discussion over the greater meaning of Abu Ghraib.” Suggesting that the IFC’s buzzwordy promises to foster critical inquiry and invite intellectual debate meant that it would serve as a platform for America-bashers, she excoriated the project’s creative team, calling them “a Who’s Who of the human rights, Guantánamo-obsessed world.”

Burlingame played fast and loose with some facts. She didn’t mention, for instance, that the people she named represented only five of the project’s eighty-nine advisers and board members; she tarred Eric Foner by associating him with an infamous remark made by another Columbia University faculty member at an antiwar teach-in in 2003, even though Foner had denounced the remark at the event. Most misleading of all, perhaps, Burlingame made it seem as if the IFC would be taking the place of a memorial and 9/11 museum, not standing alongside those edifices. In no time various 9/11 family groups mobilized. By late August the website had logged more than 43,000 signatures on a petition that followed Burlingame’s twisted logic, asserting that “the International Freedom Center honors no one by making excuses for the perpetrators of this heinous crime. The memorial should be about what happened that day, about the brave heroes who risked their lives so selflessly, and about the innocent lives that were lost… nothing more.”

Tossing such oil on the smoldering culture war produced predictable flare-ups. The New York Post imagined a “latter-day Andres Serrano” displaying “an American flag submerged in a tub of urine” or “the image of the Twin Towers covered in cow manure” at the Drawing Center, while columnist Andrea Peyser opined, “Less than four years after America was sucker-punched by terrorists, we are again under a vicious attack. Only this time, those who would destroy our way of life are working from within.” Right-wing blogs burned with invective, and Burlingame–who spoke as a 9/11 family representative at the Republican National Convention last year–made the rounds of talk shows to decry the politicization of 9/11. (Burlingame’s victim status granted her a special moral authority on the very programs that, at the same time, were decrying Cindy Sheehan for “exploiting” the death of her soldier son in Iraq.)

Unlike the Drawing Center, the IFC promised to accede to Governor Pataki’s guidelines, vowing in a six-page July 6 letter to the LMDC that “multiple layers of internal controls” will assure that its programming will be “appropriately celebratory of our nation and its leading role in the global fight for freedom.”

The cave-in didn’t surprise those who worried from the beginning that the IFC had bought into Bush’s Orwellian invocation of “freedom” to justify the war in Iraq and who feared it might favor chauvinistic or sentimental rhetoric over critical inquiry. “It seemed like it would trace the familiar liberal progression of American exceptionalism,” says NYU graduate student Dawn Peterson, who lost her brother at the WTC on 9/11. But it did lead Eric Foner to resign from the advisory board. “They were unwilling to say a word in favor of freedom of expression,” he says. “I didn’t see how it could be successful or intellectually serious.”

In June New York officials unveiled the redesigned “Freedom Tower” that will rise from the WTC site. “Somber, oppressive and clumsily conceived,” in the words of New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, the enormous, reinforced-glass obelisk on a twenty-story concrete pedestal is “an impregnable tower braced against the outside world” and “an ideal symbol for an empire enthralled with its own power, and unaware that it is fading.” Ethereal glass facade notwithstanding, as George Pataki and other opponents of critical free expression get their way, the Snøhetta Cultural Center will carry the same message.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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