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"The Dust Cries Out" By: Mark D. Tooley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, October 03, 2008

Statuary honoring the victims of 9-11 has been removed from its public place in Northern Virginia, after supposed complaints about its “nudity,” and a threatening anonymous note from a seeming Islamist.


Northern Virginia sculptress Karen Swenholt crafted “The Dust Cries Out” to honor the 3,000 victims of 9-11.  The art portrays a 9-foot-tall male and female standing side by side with faces looking skyward in mournful shock and arms outstretched towards the heavens.  The all-white, gauzily enshrouded figurines perhaps recall the “dust-covered survivors of the Twin Towers collapse,” as The Washington Times noted. 


Swenholt placed her statuary in a grassy, public spot in Falls Church, Virginia earlier this month, close to Interstate 66.  The community is a well-heeled, and mostly liberal bedroom community of Washington, D.C.  The 9-11 strike against the Pentagon personally affected many Falls Church residents, and the small city’s fire department was dispatched to the Pentagon.   Having gotten ready agreement over the phone from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDT) about displaying “The Dust Cries Out,” Swenholt had not expected controversy over a seemingly non-controversial memorializing of 9-11’s victims.


But a note purporting to come from an Islamist threatened the art work’s destruction.  Local police declined to investigate, citing a law that mandates law enforcement involvement only in threats against homes and vehicles.  And VDT seemingly shifted course from its earlier approval, ordering immediate removal for “The Dust Cries Out.”  Supposedly prudish Northern Virginians were upset about the statues’ nudity, though the vaguely impressionistic figurines suggest only the hint of anatomic correctness.  Perhaps even the whiff of nakedness was enough to alarm even a liberal suburb, whose residents must ignore the far more explicit classical naked statuary that fills parks across the river in Washington, D.C.


News of pressure on Swenholt to remove her statues first appeared in local blogs but then finally dribbled into local newspapers, The Washington Times and the local Fox News affiliate.  The VDT’s Fairfax County Permits Office instructed the artist that she lacked a proper permit for displaying her work on state land and also claimed it was distracting to motorists.  The office also informed Fairfax Police that it would remove the statue.  The police suggested to Swenholt that the artwork might be safer if she removed it herself, which she did. 

“The Dust Cries Out” now stands securely in Swenholt’s Northern Virginia front yard. "We had a very positive response from the community, with groups coming from all over to see the sculpture,” Swenholt told The Washington Times. “It was very touching."  A local lady also told the newspaper that she and her children admire the statuary.  "I think it's a beautiful piece of artwork; it's a skillful representation of suffering and loss."  Others reportedly make pilgrimages to Swenholt’s lawn to appreciate the 9-11 remembrance.


Intentionally or not, Fairfax County authorities seem to have achieved what a hostile and apparently Islamist note writer had desired.  After only two days of public display on state land, an anonymously typed note was left at the statuary’s base.  “We believe that this must be taken down,” read the all caps note.  “To awake every morning to see this reminder of what USA sees as pain suffer on 9-11 is just a remembrance of the daily injustice inflicted to every follower over the sees (sic) murdered by the United States every day.”  The note continued:  “If we was (sic) to put a statue of Allah with his tears over your wars in our front yards, you would burn it to the ground.  You will take this down today.  You will take this away now or we will do this.”

A local liberal blogger suspiciously wondered if the note were not actually the contrivance of a local conservative looking to stoke trouble.  His reasons for suspicion?  The note appeared “only” 50 days before an election.  And Falls Church politics is purportedly plagued by an “inglorious” history of anonymous letter writers who claim that local Democrats are plotting tax increases, or that immigrant children will overwhelm local schools. 

No doubt all of this is very scary to Falls Church liberals, who win elections by lopsided margins, but no doubt are befuddled by outposts of resistance.  The blogger admitted that the anonymous note aimed against “The Dust Cries Out” may actually be a real live “foreigner opposed to US politics.”


Fairfax police told The Washington Times that they have filed the letter and the case remains open, though they are not obligated to further investigate. But Swenholt believes local authorities just got nervous about her art work.  "If freedom of expression is threatened, then America isn't free; the state shouldn't silence its citizens just because a small number are offended," she told The Times.  Swenholt refers to the anonymous threat against her statue as the “Taliban note.”


In her initial call to Fairfax police about the threat, Swenholt was told that that the episode did not qualify as a hate crime because it "was against Americans and would not work,” as she recounted to The Fairfax Times.  Police admitted the threat seemed “strong and dramatic" but only suggested that she herself guard the sculpture. "I sat in my car that night with my dog and a fire extinguisher," Swenholt told the Times.  "Fortunately, nothing happened."


In her self-description on her website, Swenholt declares:  “I think of the world as a beautiful nest for our souls. My view of man’s function in the universe is optimistic and respectful but I also realize this life is dangerous. Loss is right around the corner for us all. My work reflects these tensions as I seek to make little monuments to man’s passions and to my understanding of God’s role in the world.”


Such artistic sentiments seem benign but apparently were at least somewhat threatening to local Northern Virginia officials and potentially at least to one local Islamist.

Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He is the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.

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