Free the rest of the W.T.C. from the memorial
By David Stanke
On Sept. 11, 2001, the World Trade Center was critically wounded by foreign terrorists intent on bringing America to its knees, On Sept. 28th, 2005, four years later, the World Trade Center died, brought down by a lethal mix of partisan fear-mongering, a reactionary and self-righteous American press, politicians lacking the bravery to stand for American principles, and a group of the bereaved looking to get the one thing they have always wanted, control of the W.T.C. memorial area as their own private property. At one time, I hoped that the memorial would be the spiritual and beloved heart of a revitalized and transcendent Downtown Manhattan. In four years of writing about the W.T.C., I have defiantly resisted the despairing name commonly adopted for the site. Now, I bid farewell and turn my back on the six acres. Ground Zero, rest in peace.
The Libeskind plan had an isolated memorial area with cultural buildings forming a bridge to the rest of the city. Only outside of the memorial area did other activities emerge, including culture, retail, and commercial. The Take Back the Memorial crowd targeted the first building off the memorial site, a cultural building. They rewrote the site plan, rejecting not just the specific institutions planned for the site, but anything not purely 9/11.
The definition of sacred ground has morphed to meet evolving agendas and may get even bigger evidenced by comments from family members about the suitability of retail stores across the street. At first, 16 acres were sacred. Then, it was the Twin Tower footprints. Then it was the underground bathtub covering over 50 percent of the site. Recently, the area had settled at 6 acres on the southwest part of the site containing the tower footprints and a large portion of the bathtub. But the latest allotment suddenly grew when victims family members realized that the cultural building was not devoted to them. As this argument reached its peak, bones were discovered at Deutsche Bank next door. But no one has extended the claim of sacred ground to that space . . . yet. Sacred ground is not an objective, rational location. It is a political tool that morphs from time to time based on other objectives. It is curious that broader political debate should be prohibited on Sacred Ground, when Sacred Ground itself is essentially about power, politics and control.
It is not just the borders of the city that end at Ground Zero. The borders of the United States also end here. Governor George Pataki gave victims family members editorial overview of all cultural activities at the site, essentially appointing these individuals as the Ground Zero thought police. One of the strongest post-9/11 impulses was for the U.S. to respond as a beacon to the free world. That impulse is now officialy dead.
In response to this action, it is imperative that every Downtown organization and citizen let the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and associated politicians know that enough is enough. It is time to erect a firewall around the ground zero memorial quadrant. Whatever else happens on that land, the rest of the W.T.C. site must be free of any control randomly selected by victims families. Culture, retail, and commercial should all be rebuilt with no discussion of how they relate to 9/11 or who it might insult.
Participants in all W.T.C. memorial activities should consider the moral framework of what is being done there. Current plans anticipate spending $500 million on a memorial dedicated exclusively to 3,000 murder victims. That is over $150,000 per person. Remember, these families have already received about $1 million per person on average to ease their loss. This spending is far beyond what the country spends even on its other heroes including soldiers, firemen and policemen who have died in service on any day other than 9/11/2001. Remember that we are a country at war, with a couple of states on the gulf seriously devastated, facing critical issues of fuel shortages, huge budget deficits, global warming, intractable poverty, racism, struggling public education, risks of pandemics, world hunger, genocide and ongoing risks of terrorist attacks. Since when do we have the resources to dedicate this level of attention to a monument to one defeat and its victims?
On Sept. 28th, the governor relented to the Take Back the Memorial crowd and abandoned part of his own vision that there should be something to lift us above the suffocating hatred of mass murder in pursuit of power and wealth; something that would inspire mankind to create a more peaceful and free world. He abandoned any hope that the memorial would serve as the heart of Manhattan. It is now simply a tumor perpetuating the work of the terrorists supposedly as an act of love for the deceased.
Half of the cultural facilities on the site have been turned into an expanded memorial center. The memorial complex, already a vast dedication of space and money to detailing every aspect of death and destruction, is now no less than a celebration of morbidity and defeat. Two driving values of American culture have been driven from the site. First, and most obvious, free speech and the drive to learn and expand through the expression and exchange of ideas. Second, a country built on perseverance, pragmatism, and pride in rising above challenges and crises has sunk to enveloping itself in the cloak of victimization, celebrating our losses to the detriment of the living.
The memorial center will clearly never tell the full story of 9/11. Specifically, it will not include the full truth of what happened in the aftermath of the attacks. Will it consider the ongoing looting problem that continued after the site was secured? Or the New York Times reporter who had his press pass to the site revoked after writing a story about the looting? Will it explain why a high ranking fire department official threatened physical action against me for taking pictures of the site in front of my house when a New Jersey fireman a week later was able to give me copies of a number of roles of film he took while wandering around the site? Will it discuss differences in the way remains of the deceased were treated based on whether they were a fireman, policeman or civilian? Can it address the political pressure exerted on the E.P.A. to declare the area safe to prevent spending more money on cleanup and protection of citizens? A memorial center telling the 9/11 story will never tell the whole story with the limits on free speech that have already been established.
It is another irony that the W.T.C. memorial dedicated to the heroes of 9/11 should be such an inherently non-heroic place. Heroism is courage in the face of danger, the willingness to sacrifice ones own safety for a greater common good. The International Freedom Center was such a courageous concept. By focusing on human freedom and its role in overcoming acts of human hatred, the I.F.C. was shining a light into controversial areas. I am confident that Americas record of raising the standards of acceptable human behavior show favorably in this light. This country has made great efforts to reflect on our actions, and to correct those found lacking. It is that critical review of ourselves that allows us to set standards around the world. But at Ground Zero, that American confidence dissolves. Within these borders, we are unable to discuss the promise of freedom, because we have become too weak to stand up to the scrutiny.
David Stanke, who lives across the street from the World Trade Center site, serves on advisory panels on W.T.C. planning and frequently writes on rebuilding issues.
His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org