Respect, Not a Veto, for 9/11 Families
For the families who lost loved ones in the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001, the anguish and suffering must be incomprehensible - and never ending. But the compassion, sympathy and respect Americans rightly feel for them cannot obscure the fact that 9/11 was an attack on the United States and all Americans. And the shared national purpose in response to that attack - that in the face of terrorist threats Americans will lead their lives undeterred and unafraid - requires that the understandable pain and grief of the 9/11 families not come to represent a veto on America's future.
Sadly, the continuing controversy over the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan illustrates how 9/11 victims have become the de facto arbiters of its meaning and gatekeepers of its future. For example, on CNN Wednesday, Anderson Cooper invited the sister of a man killed at the World Trade Center to voice her anguish and her opposition to Imam Rauf and the Cordoba Initiative. The day before, 9/11 widow turned Salon columnist Alissa Torres argued of the Islamic center, "Of course it should be built there." And testimonials like these are just the latest in the torrent of stories along the lines of CNN's August 25, 2010 report, " Family members of 9/11 victims support and denounce NYC Islamic center":
Talat Hamdani, whose son was killed in the attack, told CNN on Wednesday, "The issue is not about location. It is about our rights as Americans."
"All those people who died that day ... they were murdered for being Americans. We should honor those people who were murdered that day by living up to America's core values," Hamdani said.
Even as some relatives of 9/11 victims showed support for the Islamic center's construction, others held their ground in opposing it.
"This is nothing short of a provocation, an insult to the families of people who were murdered, whose bodies were scattered all across that site," said Debra Burlingame, the sister of the pilot whose hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon. She sits on the World Trade Center Memorial and Museum board of directors.
Of course, by now the media, aided and abetted by political partisans on both ends of the spectrum, has long trotted out 9/11 family members as the authoritative voices on issues from the Iraq war, closing Guantanamo Bay, detainee torture and even the reelection of George W. Bush. (That's why Glenn Beck declared of "about ten of them" in 2005," You know, it took me about a year to start hating the 9/11 victims' families." Or why Ann Coulter branded the more liberal among them as "harpies" who were "reveling in their status as celebrities and stalked by grief-arazzis. I've never seen people enjoying their husbands' deaths so much.")
But a month ago, their fellow conservative Charles Krauthammer insisted that the 9/11 victims nevertheless own the memory of Ground Zero:
"When we speak of Ground Zero as hallowed ground, what we mean is that it belongs to those who suffered and died there -- and that such ownership obliges us, the living, to preserve the dignity and memory of the place, never allowing it to be forgotten, trivialized or misappropriated."
But the horror of September 11 was an attack on the United States and all Americans. (Ironically, Krauthammer like most right-wingers told us so, declaring on September 12, 2001, "This is not crime, this is war.") Which is precisely why the memory and significance of Ground Zero no more belongs solely to its victims than to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey or the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.
And the American response to that new day of infamy shouldn't just be to embrace "her true values," but to demonstrate a firm resolve that the American way of life will not be ended, altered, or perverted by the threat of Al Qaeda terrorism.
In his September 20, 2001 address to Congress, President Bush made that perfectly clear:
"These terrorists kill not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end a way of life. With every atrocity, they hope that America grows fearful, retreating from the world and forsaking our friends...
I ask you to uphold the values of America and remember why so many have come here.
We're in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them. No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith."
But President Bush also stressed that while "Terrorists attacked a symbol of American prosperity; they did not touch its source." Which is why the American people were virtually united in the belief that the Ground Zero site at One World Trade Center should once again be home to a shimmering office building. And just as important as the planned memorial center, that skyscraper will , in Krauthammer's words, "preserve the dignity and memory of the place, never allowing it to be forgotten, trivialized or misappropriated."
The response to the destruction of the Twin Towers has rightly been what was shall always be. Lower Manhattan will once again be not just a commercial center, but the enshrinement of American diversity and religious pluralism. And that freedom, enshrined in the Constitution and American history, is why, as Jeffrey Goldberg suggests, "If he could, Bin Laden would bomb the Cordoba Initiative."
That the future of lower Manhattan must build on the best of its past is why Krauthammer's feeble analogies fail. Ground Zero is not the battlefield-turned-national cemetery as Gettysburg, the death camp turned memorial at Auschwitz or the once and future naval base at Pearl Harbor. And Sarah Palin notwithstanding, the site of the Twin Towers is not Srbrenica. Thousands of Americans didn't just die in Lower Manhattan; it's where many thousands more - and the timeless values they share - will live.
Which may explain in part the unease Alissa Torres expressed after media outlets contacted her "trying to look for family members who think building a mosque at the site is a bad idea." Looking at the controversy and the central role of the 9/11 families, Torres lamented that "As I watch other victims argue over Park51, I feel like reporters turned us into the experts we never were."
As we approach the ninth anniversary of the event that ripped open our lives, those 5,000+ people on Arnie Korotkin's listserv are more divided than ever. And I can't shake the feeling that the media has duped us. In trying to create a controversy where there is none, in raking over wounds that -- nine years later -- still hurt. As we continue to grieve on Sept. 11, many 9/11 organizers have called for a "cease-fire" in the controversy to respect all our dead. But even that isn't something we can agree on; some families will use the day to continue to protest.
Nine years after the September 11 tragedies in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, the 9/11 families deserve our continued sympathy and support. And on matters like the Islamic center, they like ever other American deserve a voice. But not the final say.