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International Freedom Center at Ground Zero -- Pro and Con

by Gotham Gazette Staff, Aug 24, 2005
 

The Great Ground Zero Heist

By DEBRA BURLINGAME
June 7, 2005; Page A14, Wall Street Journal

On Memorial Day weekend, three Marines from the 24th Expeditionary Unit who had been wounded in Iraq were joined by 300 other service members for a wreath-laying ceremony at the empty pit of Ground Zero. The broken pieces of the Twin Towers have long ago been cleared away. There are no faded flags or hand-painted signs of national unity, no simple tokens of remembrance. So why do they come? What do they hope to see?

The World Trade Center Memorial will break ground this year. When those Marines return in 2010, the year it is scheduled to open, no doubt they will expect to see the artifacts that bring those memories to life. They'll want a vantage point that allows them to take in the sheer scope of the destruction, to see the footage and the photographs and hear the personal stories of unbearable heartbreak and unimaginable courage. They will want the memorial to take them back to who they were on that brutal September morning.

Instead, they will get a memorial that stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the yearning to return to that day. Rather than a respectful tribute to our individual and collective loss, they will get a slanted history lesson, a didactic lecture on the meaning of liberty in a post-9/11 world. They will be served up a heaping foreign policy discussion over the greater meaning of Abu Ghraib and what it portends for the country and the rest of the world.

* * *

The World Trade Center Memorial Cultural Complex will be an imposing edifice wedged in the place where the Twin Towers once stood. It will serve as the primary "gateway" to the underground area where the names of the lost are chiseled into concrete. The organizers of its principal tenant, the International Freedom Center (IFC), have stated that they intend to take us on "a journey through the history of freedom" -- but do not be fooled into thinking that their idea of freedom is the same as that of those Marines. To the IFC's organizers, it is not only history's triumphs that illuminate, but also its failures. 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.

The public will be confused at first, and then feel hoodwinked and betrayed. Where, they will ask, do we go to see the September 11 Memorial? The World Trade Center Memorial Foundation will have erected a building whose only connection to September 11 is a strained, intellectual one. While the IFC is getting 300,000 square feet of space to teach us how to think about liberty, the actual Memorial Center on the opposite corner of the site will get a meager 50,000 square feet to exhibit its 9/11 artifacts, all out of sight and underground. Most of the cherished objects which were salvaged from Ground Zero in those first traumatic months will never return to the site. There is simply no room. But the International Freedom Center will have ample space to present us with exhibits about Chinese dissidents and Chilean refugees. These are important subjects, but for somewhere -- anywhere -- else, not the site of the worst attack on American soil in the history of the republic.

More disturbing, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. is handing over millions of federal dollars and the keys to that building to some of the very same people who consider the post-9/11 provisions of the Patriot Act more dangerous than the terrorists that they were enacted to apprehend -- people whose inflammatory claims of a deliberate torture policy at Guantanamo Bay are undermining this country's efforts to foster freedom elsewhere in the world.

* * *

The driving force behind the IFC is Tom Bernstein, the dynamic co-founder of the Chelsea Piers Sports and Entertainment Complex who made a fortune financing Hollywood movies. But his capital ventures appear to have funded his true calling, the pro bono work he has done his entire adult life -- as an activist lawyer in the human rights movement. He has been a proud member of Human Rights First since it was founded -- as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights -- 27 years ago, and has served as its president for the last 12.

The public has a right to know that it was Mr. Bernstein's organization, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, that filed a lawsuit three months ago against Donald Rumsfeld on behalf of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was Human Rights First that filed an amicus brief on behalf of alleged "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla, an American citizen who the Justice Department believes is an al Qaeda recruit. It was Human Rights First that has called for a 9/11-style commission to investigate the alleged torture of detainees, complete with budget authority, subpoena power and the ability to demand that witnesses testify under oath.

In fact, the IFC's list of those who are shaping or influencing the content and programming for their Ground Zero exhibit includes a Who's Who of the human rights, Guantanamo-obsessed world:

• Michael Posner, executive director at Human Rights First who is leading the world-wide "Stop Torture Now" campaign focused entirely on the U.S. military. He has stated that Mr. Rumsfeld's refusal to resign in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal is "irresponsible and dishonorable."

• Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, who is pushing IFC organizers for exhibits that showcase how civil liberties in this country have been curtailed since September 11.

• Eric Foner, radical-left history professor at Columbia University who, even as the bodies were being pulled out of a smoldering Ground Zero, wrote, "I'm not sure which is more frightening: the horror that engulfed New York City or the apocalyptic rhetoric emanating daily from the White House." This is the same man who participated in a "teach-in" at Columbia to protest the Iraq war, during which a colleague exhorted students with, "The only true heroes are those who find ways to defeat the U.S. military," and called for "a million Mogadishus." The IFC website has posted Mr. Foner's statement warning that future discussions should not be "overwhelmed" by the IFC's location at the World Trade Center site itself.

• George Soros, billionaire founder of Open Society Institute, the nonprofit foundation that helps fund Human Rights First and is an early contributor to the IFC. Mr. Soros has stated that the pictures of Abu Ghraib "hit us the same way as the terrorist attack itself."

While Gov. George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and LMDC are focusing their attention on the economic revival of lower Manhattan, there has been no meaningful oversight with respect to the "cash cow of Ground Zero." Meanwhile, the Freedom Center's organizers are quickly lining up individuals, institutions and university provosts with this arrogant appeal: "The memorial to the victims will be the heart of the site, the IFC will be the brain." Indeed, they have declared the World Trade Center Memorial the perfect "magnet" for the world's "great leaders, thinkers and activists" to participate in lectures and symposiums that examine the "foundations of free and open societies." Put less grandly, these activists and academics are salivating at the prospect of holding forth on the "perfect platform" where the domestic and foreign policy they despise was born.

Less welcome to the Freedom Center are the actual beneficiaries of that policy. According to the New York Times, early renderings of the center's exhibit area created by its Norwegian architectural firm depicted a large mural of an Iraqi voter. That image was replaced by a photograph of Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson when the designs were made public. What does it mean that the "story of humankind's quest for freedom" doesn't include the kind that is fought for with the blood and tears of patriots? It means, I fear, that this is a freedom center which will not use the word "patriot" the way our Founding Fathers did.

* * *

The so-called lessons of September 11 should not be force-fed by ideologues hoping to use the memorial site as nothing more than a powerful visual aid to promote their agenda. Instead of exhibits and symposiums about Internationalism and Global Policy we should hear the story of the courageous young firefighter whose body, cut in half, was found with his legs entwined around the body of a woman. Recovery personnel concluded that because of their positions, the young firefighter was carrying her.

The people who visit Ground Zero in five years will come because they want to pay their respects at the place where heroes died. They will come because they want to remember what they saw that day, because they want a personal connection, to touch the place that touched them, the place that rallied the nation and changed their lives forever. I would wager that, if given a choice, they would rather walk through that dusty hanger at JFK Airport where 1,000 World Trade Center artifacts are stored than be herded through the International Freedom Center's multi-million dollar insult.

Ground Zero has been stolen, right from under our noses. How do we get it back?

Ms. Burlingame is a member of the board of directors of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation and the sister of Charles F. "Chic" Burlingame III, pilot of American Airlines fight 77, which was crashed at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

A Fitting Place at Ground Zero

By RICHARD J. TOFEL
June 9, 2005; Page A16, Wall Street Journal

A year ago tomorrow, a new institution called the International Freedom Center was formally designated by the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. as one of the four cultural institutions for the World Trade Center site, all to be operated under the aegis of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation.

But some ask why such an institution -- including museum exhibition spaces, an educational and cultural center already boasting commitments from nine of New York City's, the nation's and the world's leading universities, and a robust service and civic engagement program all devoted to advancing the cause of freedom -- should be placed at Ground Zero. It is a serious question, and it deserves a thoughtful response.

The answer can be found in our society's proudest traditions and its deepest aspirations.

First, of course, the World Trade Center site must include a fitting and powerful memorial. And so it will. Michael Arad and Peter Walker's "Reflecting Absence" will transform the footprints of both of the Towers into "voids," each nearly an acre in size, and including perhaps the largest continuous man-made waterfalls in the world, surrounded by a veritable forest in the middle of the nation's third-largest business district. The Memorial will dominate the site, and provide its soul.

Then there will be the Memorial Center, a museum devoted to the events of September 11 itself, with exhibit space roughly equal in size to that at the International Freedom Center. The Memorial Center will tell the stories of the day -- of heroism and sacrifice, of rescue and service, of courage and resolution, of memory and loss. It is the Memorial Center that will contain the iconic artifacts of September 11.

That is necessary, but not sufficient.

As envisioned in Daniel Libeskind's master plan for the site's redevelopment, the International Freedom Center's building will serve as a buffer between the sacred Memorial and the hustle and bustle of the surrounding city, including the thousands of people who will move each day in and out of Santiago Calatrava's spectacular new transit hub.

But the International Freedom Center itself will do much more than that. It will serve as a complement to the Memorial, bringing a universal "narrative of hope" to a place where hope is imperative.

* * *

In a world awash in so-called watershed moments, September 11, 2001, was the beginning of a new era, the end of what President Bush called the post-Cold War "sabbatical." Many of the meanings and lessons of September 11 will not be fully clear for years, but as the president reminded us in his second inaugural address, "We have seen our vulnerability -- and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny -- prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder -- violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom."

Freedom, we have learned time and again, is not a gift from our parents to be put on a shelf and admired. It requires work in our own time, work each of us can do and all of us must do.

Nor is the story of freedom one which began in America -- or one that can end here. Ambassador Martin Palous, who fought for freedom in his own Czechoslovakia, now serves the free Czech Republic, and is also one of the more than 35 scholars of freedom who have advised the International Freedom Center, put it this way:

"9/11 is a story of courage, hope, and freedom: the courage to make the decision to go into the buildings to save someone, the hope to start anew after disaster, the wish to base our society on free will in the context of a pluralistic public sphere. It was a moment of truth in the story of freedom, and it connects the United States with democratic revolutions around the world, which share this quality of believing in the possibility of new beginnings." Out of the tragedy of September 11 came a renewed civic spirit, and the International Freedom Center will work to sustain that. This is work that can unite people of goodwill everywhere.

To be sure, the International Freedom Center will host debates and note points of view with which you -- and I -- will disagree. But that is the point, the proof of our society's enduring self-confidence and humanity. Moreover, the International Freedom Center will rise above the politics of the moment. It will not exist to precisely define "freedom" or to tell people what to think, but to get them to think -- and to act in the service of freedom as they see it. And it will always do so in a manner respectful of the victims of September 11.

* * *

Judge Learned Hand may have put it best in the speech he gave in a New York City park during one of freedom's darkest hours, in the midst of another generation's greatest test: "The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women."

Ground Zero is precisely the right place to make this stand and leave a legacy for our children and generations to come. No less than Abraham Lincoln told us so, and at no less a place than Gettysburg. One hundred and forty-two years later, many Americans remember what was done there, but nearly all know what was said there. Lincoln did not speak at Gettysburg of Little Round Top or Pickett's Charge. He talked about the future, and here is what he said:

"It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom."

Mr. Tofel is president of the International Freedom Center.


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