Volume 18 • Issue 11 | August 5 - 11, 2005

Talking Point

Freedom requires standing up to 9/11 family leaders

By David Stanke

In matters of the World Trade Center, where does sympathy end and reality begin? Is it legitimate to criticize people who have experienced great loss? Are the causes and tactics of people surviving tragedy always legitimate? Can we oppose someone’s cause while still caring about their loved one?

A movement has been launched by 9/11 victims’ families to halt progress at the W.T.C. and to expand the memorial. This challenge unites interests that pose a real threat to the W.T.C. site plan selected based on public input. The banner for this movement is “Take Back the Memorial.” The strategy is to create controversy over cultural institutions, to force them off the site. But various statements by the group regarding retail, cultural and memorial components indicate a broader objective. This is an incarnation of the 16-acre memorial movement supported by a rightwing that is fear mongering about leftwing anti-Americans.

“Take Back the Memorial” is claiming censorship authority over site. I predict that it will not stop with this building. This censorship will inevitably kill all cultural initiatives. The same strategy could well be used to oppose retail and perhaps, components of commercial and transportation facilities. Under the philosophy of “all 9/11 all the time,” advocates will try to restrict pedestrian access to the memorial area to 9/11 tourists.

The group has called on potential donors to the W.T.C. Memorial Foundation to withhold contributions until culture is eliminated from the W.T.C. I agree that no one should give to the memorial until all controversy over the site has ended. It is likely that this may never happen. But if the empty pit doesn’t encourage more reasonable discussion, nothing will.

There is no doubt that the public will be generous to this effort. But private fundraising is already off to a slow start, I suspect because of the history of controversy and public attacks these individuals have generated. Finding a leader for the foundation was difficult. Why did so many big names walk away from what should be a prestigious position? The better question is, given the controversies, why would one stay? Would you want your name dragged through the mud in the press by 9/11 family members for your charitable efforts?

Four years after the fact, we are still staring at a giant hole in the middle of the financial capital of the world because a handful of political activists, self-proclaimed spokespersons for the thousands of families who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, have hijacked the rebuilding process with demands to transform this vital commercial sector into a giant cemetery. This combative, selfish, power-addicted group holds great sway with the governor and other politicians. They have excelled at proclaiming their extended victimization through the media. They consider the entire 16-acre W.T.C. site, which is owned by the public, as their own personal property. They have opposed any use of the site that is not specifically designed to their preferences. They fail to acknowledge that redevelopment after a terrorist attack can honor the dead and their survivors.

Throw out everything you’ve heard about the W.T.C. site from Take Back the Memorial. Leaders misrepresent and misstate the facts to suit their objectives. The broader New York press quotes them repeatedly without checking their facts, reviewing the post-9/11 history or seeking opposing opinions. The monumental 6-acre memorial and underground 9/11 museum with soaring open spaces has been portrayed by this group as a slap in the face of the deceased. The press has allowed this group such control over the public dialogue, that the claim becomes almost believable.

Here are some facts. The W.T.C. memorial, as currently planned, will occupy six acres or 38 percent of the original site. The memorial and memorial center provide over 500,000 square feet of space dedicated exclusively to 9/11, its victims, and its artifacts. It preserves vast proportions of the footprints at multiple levels, including exposed, cut off box beams and broad expanses of the bathtub wall. There will be a place for unidentified remains as well as space exclusively dedicated to family members of the deceased. The 9/11 memorial is similar in size to the W.W. II memorial in Washington. It dwarfs the Vietnam Memorial in size and cost. In short, the size, scope, and cost of the memorial relative to the human tragedy are far beyond anything this country has considered before. Sympathy should not be measured by size and cost, but clearly, the memorial is not being short changed.

The two cultural buildings adjacent to the memorial have not taken space away from it. The 250,000-square-foot cultural center building in the process of being scaled back will be located in the same quadrant as the memorial. It will contain a 9/11 memorial visitor center, in addition to two cultural institutions. The grand planning process for the site plan included extensive participation by family groups, residents, experts and other interested parties. Cultural facilities have always been part of the plan based on public comment as reflected in the Daniel Libeskind site plan. Many family members in the process approved of and support of the cultural facilities. The cultural buildings are a big part of developing a 24-hour community in the neighborhood.

The leaders of the redevelopment and Gov. Pataki must take a stand behind the site plan as it is. They need to move beyond talking development and get steel and concrete in place. The country is still at war, soldiers are dying, attacks continue worldwide and the U.S. is still under threat. As individuals, we all have financial, physical, emotional and spiritual issues. “All 9/11, all the time” falls short of what is needed for the country, and for the destroyed W.T.C. site. Fundraising for the memorial and cultural components should be done at the same time but separately. Real development on the Path station, commercial buildings and retail space should begin while fundraising is in process.

At a recent Lower Manhattan Development Corporation meeting discussing the memorial, a 9/11 family member demanded that the “cultural elite” be removed from the memorial site. The use of “elite” awakens the specter of McCarthyism, trashing opponents based on innuendo without considering issues and facts. The Take Back the Memorial campaign is a standard power play, and while not new to the W.T.C., it is an insult to the memory of the deceased. I am reminded again that in matters of human behavior, 9/11 changed nothing.

It is interesting that opponents attack the Freedom Center and Drawing Center as “elites.” The individuals behind this movement are the self-proclaimed elites of the W.T.C. By qualification of having lost a family member, they have become experts and the final authority on all aspects of the site. They know that the future of Downtown does not require additional transportation facilities. They know that everything on the site is worthy of historic preservation, regardless of cost and resonance of the item. They know that tourist levels will overwhelm any facility the site planners have provided. They are the sole arbiters of the boundaries of sacred ground. Debra Burlingame, who launched this movement with an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, even tells us what Iraqi war veterans will want from the site. In short, everyone else with knowledge or feelings about the site is irrelevant. The opponents claim to be the real elite, the “victim elite” of the W.T.C. and the country.

Are the International Freedom Center and the Drawing Center the right institutions for the first building of the cultural center? That topic is worthy of its own consideration. But based on the qualifying conditions discussed by advocates and Gov. Pataki, there is no cultural institution that will qualify. The only response to the Take Back the Memorial movement is to move forward with the site plan as is. If contributors take to the sidelines because of this controversy, instead of a memorial to the victims, the empty pit will stand as the memorial to the victim elite’s efforts to poison W.T.C. discussions.

David Stanke, co-president of BPC United, is on the World Trade Center Memorial Center Advisory Committee to the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and a consulting party to the L.M.D.C. and Port Authority on historic preservation at the W.T.C. site. His e-mail is bpcunited@ebond.com.


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