On September 28, 2005, New York Governor George Pataki announced that he was removing the controversial proposed International Freedom Center (IFC) from the World Trade Center (WTC) Memorial. His announcement officially ended an important battle in America's 40-year-old culture war and signaled a stunning defeat for the far-Left.
The IFC's founders had touted their “Freedom Center” as a “world-class place of education and engagement, helping people to understand, appreciate and advance freedom's narrative of hope.” As the gateway to the greater WTC Memorial it would seek to “educate, inspire and engage people around the world to consider freedom's promise, to feel freedom's power and to act in freedom's service.” But as facts concerning its founders, its advisory board and its financial donors, including billionaire George Soros, emerged, the IFC looked more like a left-wing indoctrination center than a fitting addition to the WTC Memorial.
The battle cry against the IFC was first sounded by Debra Burlingame, a Westchester, N.Y. housewife, in an op-ed titled The Great Ground Zero Heist. Burlingame, whose brother, Charles “Chic” Burlingame, was murdered on 9/11, served on the board of directors of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, the parent organization of the IFC. The IFC was the brainchild of Tom Bernstein, the board president of the U.S.-bashing Human Rights First, and Peter Kunhardt, a leftist documentary filmmaker. I wanted to know what had initially caused Burlingame, a self-described “life-long liberal Democrat,” to oppose the IFC so I contacted her and asked her directly.
Burlingame says that she initially became suspicious of the IFC's mission when she noticed that its founders seemed to avoid specifics when describing IFC programs and when discussing what content would fill its 300,000 square-foot interior. Her concerns became more serious when she discovered that IFC planning sessions made no mention of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan, Islamists or Iraq – all topics directly related to the attack on the Twin Towers. While examining the IFC's development program she also discovered that the iconic photo of an Iraqi woman holding up ink-stained fingers – a pro-freedom statement related to 9/11 if there ever was one – had been removed from a list of possible IFC display items and had been replaced by a photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had little or no relevance to events surrounding September 11, 2001.
Prodded into further action by those discoveries, Burlingame began investigating the people and organizations involved in the IFC's design, concept and funding. What she found disturbed her profoundly: the IFC was being advised by people and organizations with agendas that were often antagonistic towards if not downright contemptuous of the U.S.
She was shocked to find that Eric Foner, a tenured radical who shortly after the 9/11 attacks said, “I'm not sure which is more frightening: the horror that engulfed New York City or the apocalyptic rhetoric emanating daily from the [Bush] White House,” was a member of the IFC's Committee of Scholars. Also on that committee was Michael Posner, a radical leftist and founding member of Human Rights First, which vigorously defends the rights of terrorists. Involved with IFC planning was Anthony Romero of the ACLU, who was pushing the IFC to develop an exhibit showing how individual rights in the U.S. had been curtailed since the passage of the Patriot Act.
Spurred on by her discoveries, and driven by a desire to see the victims and heroes of 9/11 honored with a fitting memorial, Burlingame penned “The Great Ground Zero Heist.” It was published in the Wall Street Opinion Journal on June 8, 2005 and its publication exposed the IFC to intense public scrutiny. The next day, Richard J. Tofel, the IFC's president, published what appeared to be a rebuttal of Burlingame's article in the same Opinion Journal. The battle for Ground Zero had begun.
What happened next would have been unthinkable before the rise of the Internet: Burlingame's article spread through the right-wing blogosphere like a gasoline-fueled wildfire. Soon, citizens groups opposed to the IFC began organizing. Individual bloggers and internet activists, myself included, dug for and examined IFC-related facts while pressuring prominent politicians to give their views on the IFC. As public knowledge of the IFC's suspect agenda became widespread, 9/11 victims' families groups organized and began a petition drive against the placement of the Freedom Center at Ground Zero.
A few Old Media outlets, particularly the New York Times, fired back with a steady stream of pro-IFC op-eds, at one point audaciously trying to equate the International Freedom Center with “Freedom” itself, implying that those who opposed the Center were “un-American.” In past ideological brawls the Times could always count on solid support from its friends in the arts, academia, and the media, but on the issue of the IFC the Times' exhortations to do battle were met with welcome silence. Even the left-wing blogosphere, never one to resist a good political fight, responded to the Times' battle-cry by remaining largely mute on the subject of the growing public opposition to the IFC and its leftist agenda.
When I pointed this out to Debra Burlingame, she was unsurprised. She offered a simple explanation as to why the New York Times had failed in its effort to “rally the troops”: “There never was support for the IFC from the American public,” she said.
Burlingame went on to say that Americans don't want Ground Zero politicized because on the day of the attacks that brought down the Twin Towers people did not act like Republicans or Democrats or Liberals or Conservatives but as Americans united by the national tragedy unfolding before them. They want to remember that time of unity, that day of many victims and many, many heroes. They do not want those memories of 9/11 spoiled by the types of political and ideological squabbles that the Freedom Center would have likely encouraged, had it been built.
Victims' family members were particularly incensed by the IFC's seeming attempt to re-write the history of the 9/11 attack as “an attack on freedom” instead of truthfully presenting the attack as the mass-murder committed by Islamist religious fanatics that it was. Charles Wolf, whose wife was murdered by those fanatics on 9/11, expressed resentment towards the IFC's attempt to avoid reality and instead to cast those murdered on 9/11 as having somehow been involved in a “greater struggle” for freedom. “It's a hook to turn the 9/11 people who went to work that day into part of this bigger idea for freedom,” Mr. Wolf said. “My wife is not a goddamn freedom fighter. All she was fighting for was a chance that we might move to a bigger apartment.”
I asked Debra Burlingame if she had ever felt intimidated by the power and influence that those pushing the IFC possessed. “Though they [the IFC leadership] had money, power and influence on their side, I had something on my side that they desperately lacked: the power and will of the American people,” she said. [Emphasis added]
That will was powerfully displayed on August 17, 2005, when the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) issued a statement against the inclusion of the IFC in the WTC Memorial. The FDNY's rejection of the IFC put enormous pressure on New York Governor George Pataki to come out against the IFC. It was well known that Pataki could, with the stroke of a pen, ban the Freedom Center from the WTC site. During the debate over the IFC, Pataki had made clear that he would not tolerate a WTC Memorial that denigrated “America, New York, freedom, or the sacrifices and courage shown on Sept. 11.” Still, the FDNY's condemnation of the project, and the ever-emerging facts concerning its far-Left proponents and its left-leaning agendas weren't enough for Pataki to banish the IFC from the site. Even when a memo oozing contempt for the U.S. from IFC Advisory Board member International Museums of Conscience had surfaced, Pataki held his cards as to whether or not the IFC would be part of the World Trade Center Memorial.
As pressure mounted against the IFC, its founders scrambled to save the project. The IFC submitted a revised plan to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), which oversees the WTC site. IFC founding member Tom Bernstein tried to balance the IFC's ideological lopsidedness by installing former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky to its board but by late September 2005 it looked like the IFC was doomed.
On September 23, 2005 New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a surprise statement opposing the IFC: “I cannot support the IFC,” said Clinton, “While I want to ensure that development and rebuilding in lower Manhattan move forward expeditiously, I am troubled by the serious concerns family members and first responders have expressed to me.”
Three days later former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani came out against the IFC saying, “They should change the whole concept and scrap those plans and start from the beginning and focus it on Sept. 11.”
Five days after Giuliani spoke, Governor Pataki issued the statement that officially ended what had likely been a drive to build a left-wing indoctrination center on hallowed ground where nearly 3000 Americans had been murdered.
I asked Debra Burlingame what her idea of a proper 9/11 Memorial would consist of. She said it would simply focus on the many individual heroic acts that transpired on the grounds of the World Trader Center site. It would be a place that memorialized the events of 9/11 and respectfully honored the dead.
We talked about a mutual acquaintance, retired FDNY member Lee Ielpi, who has been instrumental in reaching out to family members of those murdered on 9/11. In the course of that conversation, she related the following story about Lee, one – that in its simple beauty – encompasses the true meaning of Freedom.
Lee spent nine months recovering the remains of the dead at Ground Zero. One day workers were sifting through the Twin Towers wreckage when they discovered something that terrified even some of the hardened recovery workers who had already spent countless hours at the site - the intact but badly decomposed body of a woman grotesquely impaled on a piece of steel rebar. She hung upside down, her waist-length hair flowing downward in awful juxtaposition with the violence of her death. With her discovery Ground Zero fell silent. Lee Ielpi, who removed his own son's body from the wreckage of the South Tower, stepped forward and carefully lifted her off the rebar. He held her close – cradling her as one might cradle an infant and in a soft voice said, “It's okay, we have you now.”
There are countless 9/11 stories like that one; stories of love and kindness and bravery in the face of indescribable fear, horror and inhumanity. Each one happened because men like Mohammed Atta took advantage of freedom to do evil and men like Lee Ielpi took advantage of freedom to do good. Their actions, side by side, show human Freedom for what it is: not a complex, abstract concept in need of detailed explanation but a simple absence of coercion allowing individual men to choose to do good, or evil, or nothing at all.
Chained by an ideologically-driven relativism that holds good and evil to be situational, often interchangeable and therefore difficult if not impossible to define, Tom Bernstein and the other left-wing cultural elites who shaped the IFC's agendas are incapable of seeing that the individual acts of Sept. 11, 2001 – both good and bad – tell Freedom's story better than any museum or educational center or high-tech multimedia presentation ever could.
Debra Burlingame, Lee Ielpi and most other ordinary Americans intuitively understand what Freedom is – no convoluted lessons of its history are needed. Up against their simple clarity, the cultural elites of the International Freedom Center, who tried to hijack Ground Zero, never really had a chance.
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