Controversy is coming to a head here in New York City over whether the International Freedom Center (IFC), a planned new museum, will receive the prominent place it has been offered as one of four cultural institutions to occupy a rebuilt Ground Zero. The debate has ramifications for how September 11 fits into our collective memory, and implications for how progressives put across their policy views.
The story as best as I can make out is this: Shortly after 9/11, Tom Bernstein, the President of Chelsea Piers and long-time Board Member and Chair of Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights) came up with the idea of building a center devoted to exploring and promoting the ideal of freedom on the site of Ground Zero and worked with 9/11 widow Paula Grant Berry to get the project in motion.
Several nights ago Bernstein was interviewed on NY1 and explained that the hope of the Freedom Center was to ensure that the 9/11 institutions "stood the test of time" and were put into a broader context. Plans were developed, and the Center - which attracted the backing of numerous well-heeled and progressive New Yorkers - was chosen from among several hundred cultural institutions vying for space on the site. The IFC is not to be the primary 9/11 memorial museum on the site, but rather a companion to what will be an underground permanent exhibit devoted solely to the events of that day.
But as plans for the Center shaped up, friction mounted. In June a 9/11 widow named Debra Burlingame published an op-ed blasting the plans. She objected to the idea that the 9/11 memorial must somehow transcend the day itself, and voiced fear that the Center would offer a "didactic history lesson":
The public will have come to see 9/11 but will be given a high-tech, multimedia tutorial about man's inhumanity to man, from Native American genocide to the lynchings and cross-burnings of the Jim Crow South, from the Third Reich's Final Solution to the Soviet gulags and beyond. This is a history all should know and learn, but dispensing it over the ashes of Ground Zero is like creating a Museum of Tolerance over the sunken graves of the USS Arizona.
She accused Freedom Center organizers of lining up support with "this arrogant appeal: The memorial to the victims will be the heart of the site, the IFC will be the brain."
Groups of 9/11 family members and fire-fighters have lined up behind Burlingame's critique. I don't know enough to judge whether this started as an orchestrated attack, but it quickly grew into one. In this National Review article, the IFC organizers are ridiculed as politically correct, anti-American and sex-crazed.
Last week the IFC planners issued a last-ditch effort to save the project: a detailed report aimed to counter claims that the Center might display exhibits that were critical of the US, or that it would sideline the events of 9/11 itself.
Now Senator Hillary Clinton has come out against the museum, saying that she's troubled by the concerns of the relatives and first-responders. My sense is that the momentum has swayed in favor of the families and fire-fighters, and that the IFC project could soon collapse.
What happened here? How, in New York City of all places, did a group of savvy, well-intentioned and thoughtful progressives wind up on the wrong side of a debate over the meaning and legacy of 9/11. It may be unfair to examine the IFC project through the lens of progressive strategy; its organizers were focused on building an institution rather than a movement. But their rocky journey to engage the public in their project may shed light on progressives' larger struggle to put their ideas across to people.