It is, for many people, one of the iconic images of 9/11: The remnants of a steel beam shaped like a cross, standing amid the smoke and ruins of Ground Zero. It was an eerie and, for some, a faith-affirming presence at the site during the weeks following the attacks
As the city prepares to commemorate the 10th anniversary of that terrible day, the famous cross has been moved to a prominent place at the September 11 Memorial and Museum at Ground Zero. Officials no doubt hope that this artifact will provide a degree of comfort and solace to many who lost loved ones a decade ago.
The cross surely is an important part of the 9/11 story of grief, recovery and hope. For many people of faith, it is a symbol of the Christian narrative of life triumphing over death.
For that reason, the cross should not be displayed in a taxpayer-supported museum and memorial designed to bring together people of all backgrounds and beliefs. It is an important and cherished relic, to be sure, and it certainly deserves a place of honor and reverence near Ground Zero. But ultimately it is Christian symbol, standing not for the universal and secular rights that were assailed that day, but for the beliefs of a single religious faith.
The proper place for the cross is not at the museum, which is on public property, but at nearby St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, where the body of the Rev. Mychal Judge was brought after he became the first known casualty of the 9/11 attacks. The cross was displayed at St. Peter’s for several years, commanding the attention of the faithful and curious alike.
A group of atheists recently filed a lawsuit to move the cross out of the memorial. Some of the group’s contentions—that several members have suffered from depression and dyspepsia because they feel excluded from the memorial’s narrative—are silly. But the group does raise an important point. The museum and memorial should not divide people, and it should not promote a particular religious view or dogma.
The presence of a Christian symbol in the 9/11 memorial could be interpreted, ironically enough, as proof that the war on Islamic terrorism is a 21st-century equivalent of the Crusades. That is precisely what the late, unlamented Osama bin Laden wanted his demented followers to believe. The cross would do little to disabuse the jihadists of this twisted point of view.
But there is a larger point here as well: The attacks of 9/11 were not an attack on Christianity, and the victims of 9/11 certainly were not all Christian. The men who flew those jets into the towers sought to make war not on Christians but on the values which America’s founders declared to be universal: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The terrorists believed in the primacy of their perverted version of Islam. The United States believes in the primacy of no religious dogma.
The cross deserves its place in the history and memory of 9/11. And it deserves a proper showcase, where today’s mourners and tomorrow’s visitors can show their reverence in a proper setting.
That setting is not a museum. That setting is a church.