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The Grief Police


The families had alienated others, too. In August, Barbara Walters left the WTC Memorial Foundation board, blaming her departure on the controversy. But the most painful departure was Agnes Gund, the philanthropist and former Museum of Modern Art president who, after David Rockefeller, can lend more legitimacy to a charitable cause than anyone in New York. “I fear,” Gund wrote in her September 29 resignation letter to Whitehead, “that certain vocal family members, who as near as I can tell do not represent a majority of anything, have taken over the process and are uninterested entirely in the needs of the people who actually live and work in lower Manhattan.”

Soon, the media began talking about the death of culture at ground zero. Some who hadn’t been following the controversy became after-the-fact supporters of the IFC. The public perception of the families began to shift from victims to obstructionists.

Burlingame, who was by some accounts overwhelmed by the attention, reveled in her new position as gadfly. “Everything I’ve done in my life has prepared me for this,” she told the Times. “My acting made me comfortable with public speaking. Seven years as a flight attendant helped me understand what went on inside those planes. My legal background has been helpful all along, and it’s going to be helpful when they try to kick me off the board!” What she loved most about the battle, she told the Journal, was the sense of purpose it gave her. “Someone asked me, ‘Have we become complacent? Do you miss 9/11, when people had unity?’ And I say, ‘No, no, no. What I miss is the anger. And the clarity. That’s what I miss.’ ”

If other Take Back the Memorial members had similarly personal motivations, they felt no need to apologize for them. “Everything has been done to us,” says Diane Horning, “starting with the death of loved ones.”

“Every piece of that memorial, we had to fight for—every little thing!” says Monica Iken. “And until people really understand what that means and how that feels, they have no concept.”

“Were we asking for something radical?” Ielpi says. “Were we asking for something ugly? All we were asking for is something to mark the darkest day in our history.”

The untold story of Take Back the Memorial may be that a silent majority of family members disagreed with the decision to oppose the IFC, yet were shouted down by Burlingame and the other members of her group. “I thought what happened with the Freedom Center last summer reeked of McCarthyism,” says Chris Burke, founder of Tuesday’s Children, which provides social services to 1,100 9/11 families; his brother worked at Cantor Fitzgerald. “Look, we all know how these things work. When you throw a couple 9/11 families on a soapbox talking about justifying terrorism and blaming America, the New York Post is going to print that. These are 9/11 family members who are actively doing a disservice to 9/11 families. There is this fatigue about 9/11 now, thanks to these families who continually complain, We were promised this, we were promised that. You know what? Nine-eleven is not just about the families.”

“I believe our moral authority should not allow us to create something that the people of New York will forever hate—something that’s totally taking the life out of their neighborhood,” says Tom Rogér, whose daughter Jean was an attendant on Flight 11, which crashed into the north tower, and who joined the IFC’s family-advisory board over the summer. “My daughter didn’t live there. She died there. Nine-eleven for me doesn’t define my daughter’s life. She had 24 wonderful years before that. I don’t need to make the memorial all about her death.”

“The problem with the Take Back the Memorial families,” says Nikki Stern, a former director of a victims’ group called Families of September 11 who lost her husband, James Potorti, an analyst at Marsh & McLennan, “is they don’t differentiate between being heard and being obeyed.”

George Pataki and Hillary Clinton are both most likely running for president in 2008, of course, which is probably all you need to know about why they supported Take Back the Memorial. The way Burlingame played the game, she made it impossible for a politician seeking national office to support the IFC. What future presidential nominee wants to explain why he or she abandoned the victims of 9/11 in their hour of need—in deference to a blue-state museum?

Mike Bloomberg—without clear presidential ambitions—saw a political opportunity in coming out against Take Back the Memorial. After the IFC’s defeat, and after four years of virtual silence about ground zero, the mayor spoke freely about the danger of the families’ veto power and suggested that two of Larry Silverstein’s commercial towers be built earlier and used for other purposes, like housing or a hotel. Not that he needed to pad his twenty-point lead in his bid for reelection, but the moves sent the signal that he cared about what was right for New York, not what was politically expedient. (Privately, some members of his administration saw the move as political anyway. “Think about what was defeated here,” says one official. “It was a museum to freedom! What could you possibly find in their proposal that was objectionable?”)

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