Friday, June 10, 2005

For Once I'm Truly Furious

An Open Letter to:
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg
New York Governor George Pataki
Former New York City Mary Rudolph Guliani
The Honorable Hillary Clinton
The Honorable Charles Schumer
President George W. Bush
The Honorable John Cornyn
The Honorable Kay Bailey Hutchison
The Honorable Lamar Smith

International Freedom Center

Dear honorable leaders of the American people:

I don't know what the specific plans for the Ground Zero memorial are. I do know that anything on that site that does not have directly to do with the people who died on 9/11 and the firefighters and policemen who risked everything to save them, would be an abomination. If there's a single damn thing at that site that involves somebody's "interpretation of its significance," or that suggests that either the Democratic or the Republican party is in any way culpable for what happened, or that goes back to prior American history to show that "we" (that is, mostly white people who were dead before I was alive) do nasty things too, or even that says, "And while you're at it, remember Pearl Harbor and the Boston Massacre and don't forget what an awesome guy Abe Lincoln was," then I want the head of the person who puts it there. (Only metaphorically speaking, I hasten to add -- something that, in a world with jihadists, no longer goes without saying.)

If it is true that a mere 50,000 square feet have been authorized for the actual museum (an amount, I understand, hopelessly inadequate for the housing of all the 9/11 artifacts) while six times that much space has been authorized for somebody's political-agenda-du-jour soapbox (sorry, "interpretive center" or whatever the hell they're calling Tofel's Pet), then I want everybody who had anything to do with that decision fired, yesterday. If Richard Tofel genuinely believes that the memorial and the museum are "necessary, but not sufficient," then I want him out of there; he is utterly unqualified to have any role to play in the construction of this memorial. Not only are those two things sufficient; they are the only things that belong there. Period.

In particular, I don't want anything that has been designed, by self-important intellectuals like many of my former Princeton classmates and (based on the vacuous pomposity of his WSJ apologia) Tofel himself, to "host debates" and "make people think" and "note points of view with which [many visitors] will disagree." For God's sake, is the country not divided enough already? At Ground Zero, of all places, do we have to go out of our way to provoke more arguments? Cannot there be ONE SINGLE PLACE, anywhere in the entire country, where we can set aside the "debates" and the disagreements to focus on what we agree on (the people who died didn't deserve it, they and their families have suffered terrible pain, and a great many people rose to the occasion with true heroism)? If there is any place in all the millions of square miles in this country where debates and disagreement are ultimately, transcendently obscene, it is surely Ground Zero. We have one of the largest countries in the world in which, and the internet on which, to argue. We can argue from sunup to sundown and straight on to morning again in a million towns from sea to shining sea. Can we not at Ground Zero, if nowhere else, tell the narcissistic talking heads like Tofel to just shut up already and leave us to grieve in silence?

Note, by the way, how Tofel's whole WSJ piece reeks of the fatuous intellectual's habitual attitude of patronisation toward those whom he perceives as his inferiors and who are in need of a Center to "make them think." Literally millions of Americans will visit this site. They will stand on Ground Zero. Many will have visited the World Trade Center before the world changed, and they will stand remembering what used to be. They will remember where they were when they saw the first unthinkable video images rolling across CNN. They will remember watching people holding hands and hurling themselves to their deaths as the only escape from the torture of the inferno, and they will remember the little exploding pink clouds that the imagination refused to accept had moments before been living souls. They will remember the co-workers carrying the disabled down an Everest of stairs; they will remember the rescue workers who rushed into those buildings and never came out. They will remember the towers falling, the tsunami of white dust, the exhaustion and bereavement on the faces of the surviving policemen and firemen.

But if we're to believe Tofer, they won't think about any of this...not unless Tofer makes them think. The mere site, the memorial, the artifacts, the memories -- those are "necessary," but in order to get the preternaturally brain-dead hoi polloi to think, Tofer is certain that these things aren't "sufficient." Fortunately, ta-da! we have Smart People like Tofer to get those rednecks to put their limited brain capacity to use for a few minutes, however fitfully and creakily, and however much the unaccustomed effort hurts their heads.

Of course, whenever you hear somebody using words that are all soothing connotation but whose concrete meaning can't possibly be pinned down by the reader -- "narrative of hope" being an instructive example, and "our society's enduring self-confidence and humanity" being another, or "our society's proudest traditions and its deepest aspirations" -- you know that you are either dealing with somebody too stupid to be able to say what he means, or else too dishonest to be willing to say it plainly. Who gets to tell this "narrative," and what does it say? Half the people in this country would think that a "narrative of hope" would involve the hope that the United States would start doing what the United Nations tells it to do. The other half would think that a "narrative of hope" would involve the hope that the United States would tell the United Nations to stick their resolutions and their corruption where the sun don't shine. Our country is so bitterly divided precisely because the things the two (roughly speaking) sides "hope" for are not merely different, but to a large degree mutually exclusive. I can think of nothing more likely to provoke controversy and argument than a Ground Zero establishment encouraging people to propound competing "narratives of hope" -- nothing except, what is of course more likely, a Ground Zero establishment that presents only one, tendentious "narrative of hope" and implies that all reasonable people share that same partisan hope. And what are "our society's proudest traditions and its deepest aspirations," anyway? The rest of us have been arguing passionately about precisely this point for most of the country's history, but Tofel, bless his enlightened little heart, apparently Knows The True Answer; and what's more, Tofel knows that it won't be controversial, or at least, knows that any controversy his group's answer might cause will be Evidence Of Our Society's Self-Confidence And Humanity. Well, that's certainly reassuring to those of us who were afraid partisanship might be in the offing. No worries: Tofel and his cohorts are, it seems, close personal friends of "our society" and are fully authorized to speak for "us," and all will be well. In fact just last week Tofel and "our society" met for lunch. The sushi was awesome.

This rant has nothing to do with any callousness toward foreigners without freedom -- I have personally founded a non-profit foundation to help orphans in Kazakhstan, having learned Russian purely for the purpose of helping those kids more effectively; I complained bitterly for years about the devastating impact of Bush Sr's sanctions on the Iraqi populace (sorry, Mr. President, but full disclosure is called for here); before I was out of ninth grade I had read all three volumes of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. Nor does this rant have to do with any distaste for discussion of controversial issues. (Obviously.) Nor does this rant have to do with hatred of liberals (liberals being the group currently accused of trying to co-opt the memorial); I used to work for the Hon. Carl Albert, and these days I'm a cynical Texas independent who had been voting against Bush election after election, up until John Kerry's inability to evince any capacity whatsoever for rational thought forced me to break my perfect anti-Bush voting record last time 'round. (Sorry, again, Mr. President; but for what it's worth, you proved me completely wrong about the impossibility of establishing democracy in Iraq in less than five years, and you have my sincere congratulations.)

In particular, MLK was and remains one of my heroes; I've read literally thousands of pages of his and his biographers' works. But Ground Zero is not about MLK, and his image does not belong there.

There is a time to speak, and a time to be silent, a time to air disagreements and a time to lay them aside. And Ground Zero is a place for all Americans to remember those who fell on that evil day -- not for one group of self-important Americans to hector the rest of us with their tendentious version of "history" or whatever they happen to believe to be the "true meaning of freedom," or for half a dozen groups of self-important Americans to annoy the rest of us with their irreverent quarreling in the middle of a cemetery. I don't want Rush Limbaugh telling me that I should give some thought to the fact that it's all Bill Clinton's fault. I don't want Howard Dean expressing the opinion, however agreeably that master of tact phrases said opinion, that it's all the fault of white Christians. And I couldn't care less whether or not Tofel "will disagree" with whatever tripe Limbaugh or Dean or Soros or Coulter choose to spout from Tofel's precious little pulpit. Tofel can agree with those eminent voices of reason; he can disagree with them; I care not which -- but he can damn well do it someplace besides at Ground Zero. If not even at Ground Zero can you set politics aside and just remember the horror and the heroism of that one day, then I have to begin to doubt your capacity for basic human empathy.

Take that 300,000 square feet and use it to make another wing of the 9/11 museum. Bring more artifacts out of the warehouses; solicit more pictures from the bereaved families. Are there any persons who died on 9/11 who don't have a small individual sections of the museum telling who they were and what those remember who loved them? No? Then there isn't yet room enough for MLK or LBJ, or, for that matter, for George Washington. This is about those who fell on 9/11. It is their place. It is their shrine. It is their memorial. Nobody else's.

It's enough for the terrorists to have hijacked the 9/11 planes, without having shameless partisans or well-meaning, conceited intellectuals -- whether Democrats or Republicans -- try to hijack the site's memorial out of the conviction that it's of earth-shattering importance for the rest of us to Hear What We Your Intellectual Betters Have To Say. At Ground Zero, after all, the earth has already been shattered. It can speak for itself.

I expect my representatives, and indeed all of my fellow Americans, to do everything in their power to ensure that Ground Zero will not be turned into a soapbox, for Republicans or for Democrats, for the peace movement or for the Christian Right, for anybody at all -- except for the NYPD and the NYFD, and of course the heroic and innocent dead of 9/11. They earned a soapbox at Ground Zero. Everybody else can have enough respect to keep quiet at least as long as they stand on the site where New York's finest raised their stature to become New York's most glorious.

And to Mr. Tofel and his cohorts: have a little respect for people who have sacrificed more than you are likely ever to be willing to sacrifice, and go do your pontificating someplace else.


Ken Pierce
Austin, Texas


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