Dissent Is No Crime, Inquiry Is Not Treason

Plans and passions are clashing at Ground Zero.

A rancorous debate about what constitutes an appropriate commemoration of the Sept. 11 attacks has been rumbling for weeks. The row is focused on two institutions that will augment the main memorial at the World Trade Center site. The International Freedom Center (I.F.C.) and the Drawing Center will occupy a cultural facility adjacent to where the Twin Towers once stood.

The I.F.C. has proposed creating a “signature exhibit” that will encompass other subjects as well as 9/11. The civil-rights struggle and Poland’s Solidarity movement may be among the diverse causes celebrated in different parts of the center.

The Drawing Center has been less specific about its plans. But previous exhibitions at the group’s Soho base have included works perceived to have an anti-American hue. In one example, entitled “Homeland Security,” a plane seems poised to attack a naked woman who lies with her legs splayed.

Some bereaved relatives are outraged that the place where their loved ones died could become a platform for leftist theorizing and politically contentious art. They are disquieted that several trenchant critics of the Bush administration are among the I.F.C.’s advisors.

Debra Burlingame, whose brother Chic was the pilot of the American Airlines flight that crashed at the Pentagon, has spearheaded the objectors’ campaign. An op-ed piece she wrote for The Wall Street Journal last month called the I.F.C. a “multimillion-dollar insult.”

The article drew immediate support. Thousands of signatures were collected at a website, takebackthememorial.org. The tabloid press fanned the growing sense of outrage. Governor George Pataki inserted himself into the controversy, insisting: “We will not tolerate anything on that site that denigrates America.”

The polemics have obscured a larger truth. It is perfectly understandable that 9/11 families should regard Ground Zero as an inappropriate venue for criticisms of America; but it is reprehensible for right-wing dogmatists to use the families’ anger in an effort to asphyxiate debate in general.

First things first: The strength of the relatives’ argument should be acknowledged. No other place in the nation carries an emotional and symbolic significance remotely similar to that of Ground Zero.

Debates about the merits and failings of American policies should take place elsewhere. The sacred site where almost 3,000 people were murdered should not become a prop for political theater.

Some of the points leveled against the cultural plans, however, carry very dark overtones.

The New York Post has trumpeted the views of the relatives more than any other media outlet. In a July 7 editorial, the Post scorned a letter written by leading members of the I.F.C. The letter noted that programming at the center would be “provided by world-class universities,” including Columbia, Princeton and Oxford.

The Post wasn’t impressed by the invocation of academic excellence. The universities, it thundered, “are Petri dishes for subversive theorizing—the sort of corrosive nonsense that may have a place on campus, but which has no business whatsoever at Ground Zero.”

Within that one sentence, a line of reasoning that purported to be a defense of Ground Zero’s sanctity revealed itself as an attack upon the spirit of inquiry itself. Such rhetorical assaults help spread the ethos of the current White House, in which dissent is dishonorable.

They also contribute to one of America’s worst traditions—a streak of anti-intellectualism that regards critical thought as worthy of suspicion rather than respect.

Some of the relatives themselves have, unfortunately, also been complicit in attempts to tighten the boundaries of political discussion. Last year, before she emerged to lead the protesting families, Ms. Burlingame got involved in the President’s re-election bid. She spoke at the Republican National Convention and, about two weeks before Election Day, was listed as a “special guest” at a New Jersey rally organized by a group called Security Moms 4 Bush.

A press release announcing the event stated the body’s view that “we are at war with terrorists,” and added, with no apparent irony, that “the war should not be politicized.”

In fact, the war on terror, like every other public issue, must be politicized—at least if we are talking about politics in its true sense. The political arena is vital and relevant only so long as it functions as an open forum for argument, analysis and disagreement.

Progress—in Iraq, the war on terror, or any other area—comes when we acknowledge the imperfections of an existing position. That moment of revelation never arrives if legitimate criticism is smothered.

Ground Zero is unique. It is right and proper that different rules should apply there. But the rules that govern that hallowed ground should not be permitted to burrow into the foundations of civic life in America.

Dissent and protest do not have a place at Ground Zero. But they do have a place everywhere else.

Dissent Is No Crime,  Inquiry Is Not Treason