Freedom Center decision proves democracy works

By Rachel Snyder

When the announcement came last month that the International Freedom Center had been scrapped, I felt, if not outright elation, at least a sense of satisfaction. I believed it to be an ill-conceived idea and was happy to see it go. Obviously, not every single person was pleased by its demise. On this page last week, David Stanke angrily condemned this decision. I take umbrage with his mischaracterization of my and many others’ motives.

Mr. Stanke erroneously asserts that those of us involved with the campaign to throw out the I.F.C. were all relatives of people killed on 9/11 and were using this debate as a means for gaining more control over the W.T.C. site in order to push an anti-development agenda. I myself am not a relative of a victim, nor are some others who participated in this campaign, and I could hardly be described as anti-development. I have spoken out at every opportunity about the need to rebuild all of the lost office space at the W.T.C., and I am among the first to object to any suggestion that the site be turned into a graveyard.

I believe that no memorial could be complete without restoring the World Trade Center and the surrounding communities to the places of life they were on Sept. 10, 2001. Rebuilding would be the best kind of memorial – a living memorial. As we all know, there are some 9/11 family members who in the year following the attacks were very vocal about their desire to see the entire site remain free of commercial and cultural development. Undoubtedly some of them still hold that view, but the media’s portrayal of them as being of one mind when it comes to rebuilding has been misleading from the start. Were Mr. Stanke to ask them, he would likely find that the families have a range of opinions as varied as what one would find on the streets of Lower Manhattan.

At a rally I attended on Sept. 10, several of the speakers emphasized that what we were opposed to wasn’t the existence of the I.F.C., but its location. If its supporters truly feel such an institution would be a valued asset to this city, they are free to build it somewhere else. Objecting to its placement, which was determined by a state-controlled process, was itself an act of freedom. The First Amendment gives us the right to build it, not a mandate to do so. It also gives those of us who were against it the right to use all legal forms of speech to sway official opinion. So we signed petitions, wrote op-ed articles and attended rallies, and because the majority of us who were involved with this debate were against the I.F.C., our elected officials eventually gave in to our demands. This is exactly the way a representative democracy is supposed to work. No one can seriously claim that this incident in any way diminishes our democratic principles.

Mr. Stanke is correct when he states that no memorial could ever tell the complete story of Sept. 11. This is exactly why we need a museum that focuses solely on 9/11 and its aftermath, rather than one that treats it as only one in a long series of historic events. I have a number of relatives in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, site of the turning point in our Civil War and one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country. The people who visit that town’s historic sites aren’t looking for an exposition on how the battle fits into a global march toward freedom.

Visitors to the World Trade Center need a place where they can learn about what happened on Sept. 11. A museum should be built that tries to provide visitors with a sense of the enormity of what happened.

I want visitors to see images of the neighborhood I love covered in dust and debris. I want them to hear the stories of survivors and realize that tens of thousands of people, some of them young schoolchildren, were forced to run for their lives, and have suffered greatly as a result. I want them to know that countless Lower Manhattan residents and workers were displaced from their communities for weeks, months and in some cases even years. I want them to understand that at least half of the rescue workers who gave so much of themselves on that pile of wreckage searching for survivors continue to suffer from chronic physical ailments that may remain with them permanently. I want them to look at the faces of the lives that were stolen that day and to see that they represented a beautiful mosaic of humanity that encompassed every age, race, class, religion and ethnicity.

We can’t tell every story, but we can tell enough stories to give our future generations some idea of just how many lives were forever changed by the attacks. Building a museum that treated 9/11 as just one event out of many on the W.T.C. site would have greatly diminished the power of these stories.

Ultimately, it matters little what any of us think of the International Freedom Center, for the issue has been settled once and for all. But where do we go from here? Should we continue to segregate ourselves and our priorities, treating the memorial and redevelopment as two completely separate and competing issues? Or should we instead try to work together and understand each other’s concerns, realizing that all of us –- victims’ relatives, survivors, Downtowners, 9/11 rescue workers and everyone else who was affected by the attacks –- share a valid investment in the outcome of the rebuilding process?

Throughout this process, the questions seem to have been about determining who had the most right to decide how certain things were done. But if we accept the premise that all of us have suffered as a result of the attacks and all of us have an equal right to be a part of every aspect of the rebuilding process then the questions become: How can we, as one community, balance the need to both honor the past and build for the future? How do we make compromises that best accommodate our shared needs and goals? The debate over the I.F.C. could offer all of us a wonderful opportunity to have an open and honest discussion of our priorities, but this can only work if we all commit to truly listening to each other’s point of view. Making sweeping generalizations based on misconceptions about people’s motives will only serve to further complicate an already messy process and may alienate potential allies. In the matter of the I.F.C., Mr. Stanke and I will probably have to agree to disagree. I would only ask that he, and all of us, try to understand why different individuals feel the way they do, and use that understanding to find solutions that work the best for all of us.

Rachel Snyder is a member of the Coalition for New Twin Towers and has worked near the World Trade Center site.

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