Hijacking the 9/11 memorial

Posted: Jan 23, 2002 12:00 AM
In the wake of the most devastating terrorist attack ever on American soil, there has been much talk about the nation huddling together with a renewed sense of patriotism and unity. Sadly, the residents of New York can't even come together to erect a memorial depicting three firefighters who raised an American flag amid the wreckage of Ground Zero. The image, captured on film, became one of the mental flashpoints of 9/11, evoking at once the pain, death and perseverance of that day. But racial tensions are now flaring over a proposal to blot out the faces of two of the firefighters - all three happened to be white - and replace them with more culturally diverse mugs. In such a manner, the denizens of political correctness are projecting their personal agenda onto the memorial. Along the way, what could have been a powerful depiction of the Sept. 11 attacks is being transformed into something that is make-believe. So, you may ask, what's the harm in making up fictitious faces for two of the three firefighters depicted in the memorial? The statue is art, right? And as any artist can tell you, art and reality aren't usually on speaking terms. Writer Truman Capote put it nicely when he observed: "...Some of my friends think that when relating an event, I am inclined to alter and over elaborate. Myself, I just call it making something 'come alive.'" In other words, art doesn't fall at right angles. It is an act of creation, not construction. This distinguishes artists who get paid to have ideas, from historians who get paid not to have them. So, why should the Sept. 11 tribute statue be any different? That is, why should we treat a work of art like a historical document? Or, as one New York Post reader put it in a letter to the editor: "Who cares what race the firefighters are represented as in the memorial, as long as the flag is red, white and blue." Well, for starters, the Sept. 11 memorial wasn't an act of purely aesthetic creation. Rather, it was a depiction of real-life patriotism and human striving amid horrid circumstances. Therefore, the sculpture draws its resonance precisely from its relation to reality. I mean, if on Sept. 10 your neighbor had erected a sculpture of three firemen and an American flag and placed it in the back yard next to some discarded plastic flamingos, you'd have thought, hillbilly Picasso. Place that same image at or around "Ground Zero" post-Sept. 11 and you have a mental flashpoint that sums up the psychic wounds of a country. Get it? The Sept. 11 memorial ascends precisely because it is not pretend. It is about a specific moment in time, a synthesis of pain and death and perseverance that speaks directly and potently to the shared hurts of a country. And that's precisely the quality that is now being hijacked by those who would use the statue as yet another vehicle to tout political correctness.