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September 24, 2005

The Freedom Center, 9/11 and Engaging the Public With Progressive Ideas
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

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.

Overriding the IFC debate seems to be the quite understandable refusal of those affected most directly by 9/11 to see their personal heartbreaks folded into a more universal, more abstract, narrative.  The suggestion that 9/11 may not stand "the test of time" on its own -- that it must be placed in a broader context to remain relevant-- may be true as a matter of foreign policy or US history, but not as far as human experience is concerned.   

Burlingame argued that visitors to Ground Zero might be more interested in poring over the thousands of relics from that dreadful day (now housed in a hangar at JFK airport) than pondering exhibits on Martin Luther King and Ghandi.  She has a point, and there are ways of making sure that the base, emotional experience of viewing artifacts goes is something beyond sentimental.  The most memorable part of the US Holocaust Museum on the Mall is the pile of shoes, and they are presented in a way that raises rather than forecloses broad questions. 

The obvious answer is that there's a proper balance to be struck, but when dealing with a site as sensitive as Ground Zero, it makes sense to err on the side of the immediate and human rather than the abstract and intellectual.   I don't know that the project's opponents have made this argument, but there's a case that visitors - perhaps with the help of some provocative questions and suggestions embedded in the exhibits - will be capable of connecting the personal experience of 9/11 victims to larger questions of freedom and America's purpose on their own.   

Part of the IFC's problem lies in being in some sense juxtaposed against, rather than fully integrated with, the memorial museum.  Though this is undoubtedly not what was intended by anyone, there's a sense in which the IFC seems positioned to counter-balance the memorial museum, by offering perspectives that are broad not narrow, and international rather than local.  Positioned in this way, the IFC is easily represented as a kind of check or corrective on the institution devoted to the day itself.

Where's the link to progressive strategy?  It has to do with recognizing the power of individual experience and empathy in how people's ideas get shaped.  Some progressive intellectuals wonder why anyone ought to listen to Cindy Sheehan.  But lots of ordinary Americans have heard her louder and clearer than any think tank expert.  Progressives have practically given up on an urban agenda for the last couple of decades, but the human tragedy that unfolded in New Orleans earlier this month now offers a chance to restart that engine.  Rather than trying to override that by offering an intellectual counterweight to Cindy or by abstracting from New Orleans, progressives need to frame their arguments on the foundation of these personal narratives.

Another closely related of contention in the plans involves the emphasis the IFC intends to place on the international dimensions of 9/11:  responses of other countries to the tragedy, the foreign nationals who perished in the towers.  Center critics have argued that visitors from Dubuque won't want to focus on Canada's tears.  There is a related concern that in telling the history of freedom, America's role will be downplayed, and its contradictions and hypcrisies highlighted.  Indeed reports suggest that  museums from around the world have urged IFC planners to downplay America's centrality to the tragedy.

This smacks some of some of the debates in progressive circles about whether Americans can or should be talked out of their belief in their own uniqueness.  We've debated here on DA what role exceptionalism ought to play in a progressive foreign policy framework.  Some progressives worry that American exceptionalism and self-absorption stands in the way of respect for others, interest in what happens outside of our shores, or commitment to universal values.  Such concerns may be behind the call to turn over part of Ground Zero for exploration of international dimensions. 

Yet these concerns are easily misunderstood (or wilfully caricatured) as self-loathing or self-destructive.  To get Americans to consider outside perspectives, it helps to acknowledge from the outset that, in doing so, they are not being asked to put aside American priorities,  privileges or patriotism.   Surely at Ground Zero - as at Yad Vashem and the US Holocaust Museum - there is room for primary emphasis on immediate victims, and for more outward-looking perspectives.   But the public's comfort with the latter may hinge on their confidence in the former.

A third aspect at play here is the sense one has when reading through the IFC's report of the fine political line the organizers are trying to walk.   The report quotes a number of prominent Republicans, and the implication is clear that the Center won't touch Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, or anything similar. 

But the questions raised by the project are impossible to ignore:  How do you focus on the global solidarity immediately post-9/11 without at least evoking thoughts of how fleeting that unity was?  How do you discuss freedom and 9/11 without considering whether the fight against terror justifies certain limitations on individual liberty?

The report notes that:  "Four years later the link between September 11 and freedom has become an indelible part of the historical record."   Surely this is a reference to Afghanistan, but also to Iraq.  And just as surely, in drawing this link, the Center will evoke questions about those missions, whether in fact 9/11 and the Iraq invasion were related, and whether invading Iraq will ultimately advance the cause of freedom.

The IFC's organizers faced a catch-22:  inflame opponents by freely admitting that the Center would occupy hot-button territory, or posit a concept of freedom that is so abstract and selective that all the tough issues are shunted aside.   In their report, at least, they appear to have opted for the second course (probably to avoid certain death for their project).  In reality, of course, if the IFC moves forward on Ground Zero, the needle-threading will be a constant, and Enola Gay like controversies a virtual certainty.

The IFC organizers may have fully realized what they were getting into, and they may still find a clever way out.  But in doing so, they will have to convince a wary public that they respect the individual dimensions of 9/11, and the exceptionalism, patriotism and even sentimentalism that are unavoidable parts of memorializing that day.

PS - For anyone who made it here, apologies for the rambling.


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This isn't that important. Living in the same bit of Jersey as many of the civilian victims of 9/11 (Monmouth County had...I forget how many, but it was in the hundreds), the impression I got was this:

It might have been a good idea, but this is the wrong place. It's "off-message", so to speak.

Suzanne, I would be happy to support the IFC...

...But not there. At Rock Center? Sure.

At Lincoln Center? Sure.

Anywhere else in Manhattan BUT where it's placed.

If we're going to do a museum like that, which I think is necessary, it should be focused on 9/11, in the same way as the Arizona is focused on Pearl Harbor.

This is a great post Suzanne. Just a few of my own random reflections:

The political, historical and moral meaning of 9/11 will always be contested. The event touches on too many difficult issues about the nature of the United States, its place in history, and its relations with the rest of the world, for any associated political message to be acceptable to all of us. The precise nature of the message is hardly relevant. Any political message - general or particular, abstract or concrete, liberal or conservative - would be both controversial and unequal to the emotional significance of the site, and seems out of place.

Personally, I find the very idea of a "Freedom Center" at Ground Zero to be an implicit endorsement of the notion that "they attacked us because they hate our freedom," an assertion which I reject. Thus, I find the attachment of such a museum to the memorial objectionable. But that's not the main point. A different museum might be expressive of a political interpretation of 9/11 that I support personally, but then someone else would find the museum objectionable. And they count as much as me.

For example, I would be more inclined to attach a museum of war, political violence and man's inhumanity to man. But then some would say the museum endorses the "moral equivalency" fallacy of the left. They would reject the notion that the fundamental issues raised are those of war and violence themselves, and claim that my interpretation is insufficiently mindful of the distinction between noble, righteous and heroic violence on the one hand, and the foul deeds of evildoers on the other.

The point is that the memorial is no place for these anxious and bitter arguments. The overall impression should be quietly reflective, mournful, somber and peaceful. The noisy intellectual background of political argument, ideology and controversy should be excluded to the extent possible. The site is the place where 3000 people lost their lives horribly, where two towering and confident structures that formed part of the architectural and psychological identity of a city and a country were destroyed, and where bystanders and a whole country were forced to look on helplessly as it happened. Let the families, and the country, have their graveyard and their grief, and save the politics for some place else.

Suppose your grandfather was killed by a rival. Suppose that there is a painful disagreement in the family about the meaning of the death: some think Grandpa was killed because his rival was a twisted and bitter coward, envious of a better man; others think Grandpa was was killed because he was a cruel and ruthless son of a bitch, who had it coming. About the only thing the family agrees on is that they loved grandfather and miss him terribly. Do they want his headtone to be the site of "Envy and Rivalry Learning Center", filled with pamphlets and exhibits that only remind the family members of their painful disagreement?

Dan: Your final paragraph nails it.

That said, there *does* need to be a museum, one that tells the story of 9/11, at the site.

The current idea isn't it, but there're examples out there.

Can anybody think of any?

It's breathtakingly stunning that serious people would have to ask where anyone went wrong in proposing the IFC at ground zero.

Furthermore the question being how did we frame the proposal incorrectly and/or fail to sell it well enough just underlines the point that there are those who don't get it and those who live in different planes of reality.

It's always going to be difficult to put a happy face on the obscene.

Lane Brody

Lane: I have no idea which side you're calling obscene. Those proposing the current institution at current site, or their opponents?

Side note -- Tom Bernstein is the one who brought Natan Sharansky's book, The Case for Democracy, to Bush's attention. Bernstein is a college friend of the president's

Side note -- Tom Bernstein is the one who brought to Bush's attention the Natan Sharansky book that the president was touting, The Case for Democracy. Bernstein is a close friend and former (Texas Rangers) business partner.

It's simple, really. The memorial should be about that horrible day, the people, the courage, and the loss. To make it some type of social education experiment is inappropriate. This is hallowed ground.

The correct decision has been made to cancel the IFC. Thank goodness common sense has appeared to put things in proper perspective.

This is posted post-cancelling the ITC, but I still want to say:

Time needs to pass--much more time, before we attempt to digest the greater meaning of 9-11, and not at WTC. America needs a huge history lesson obviously, but why not package it with say, the halftime show at the Super Bowl?
Fifteen minutes ought to reach full saturation of the available cortex.

The victims should be remembered, period, without a lot of patriotic fuff such as Pataki's "They hate us for our freedom" homily. You might as well chisel, "They hate us for going after their oil" on a marble slab. It just looks so temporal a few years later.

If all of this touchy-feely political correctness had existed in 1945 London would never have been rebuilt.

Build an office building adng et back to work - that is how we memoralize those who died.

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