The New Survivors
By A.D. Freudenheim  

Updated 28 September 2005

Update: as of 28 September, Governor Pataki has said that the International Freedom Center must not be included as part of WTC redevelopment. Nonetheless, read on...


Between the just-passed anniversary of 11 September, the campaign for the next mayor of New York City, Governor George Pataki’s recent waffle about whether to run again, and the many, many newspaper and other stories – between all of this, shall we say crap, flying around, it would be difficult to miss what is happening (or more precisely, not happening) with the redevelopment of the World Trade Center (WTC) site. And so we must pity the poor folks behind the International Freedom Center.

Reading the stories last week about the Center’s rallying cry for its future at the WTC, I was most struck by the comments made against the Center by the many relatives, friends, and escapees of the 11 September attacks; in fact, I was stunned by how absolutely obnoxious these 11-September-ites seem to be. Almost all sympathy for their suffering was overwhelmed by a sudden realization: that they remind me of another group of citizens who have suffered a horrible fate and subsequently used their powerful victim-hood for questionable purposes. I am referring to Jewish Holocaust survivors.

That’s terrible, isn’t it, to write that? Yet there is something to this analogy. Following the trauma the Jewish Holocaust survivors suffered in the Nazi-run concentration camps, they have had a massive impact on contemporary Judaism, in some ways reshaping the very map and makeup of Jewish identity – for Americans, for Israelis, for Jews everywhere – based on their single-minded view of their own history and what they believe it means for their, and every Jew’s, future.[1] This is not all bad; Holocaust history should be taught, if only to strive towards the fulfillment of Santayana’s admonition about how we understand the past to control our future. Moreover, the Holocaust remains (other genocidal programs notwithstanding) a singular event in human history in terms of the mechanical, military, and political power brought to bear for the sole purpose of exterminating one group of people.

Still, what living Jews are left with is a damaged form of Judaism – Holocaust-focused, death-obsessed, nervously assertive, and just plain confused. Almost two generations after those events, the idea of the Holocaust as a defining event of Judaism-the-religion, in addition to its effect on Jews-the-people, is still like a stranglehold: the Holocaust variably features in some contemporary religious liturgy; it is a central component of much Jewish education; it is mentioned often by rabbis in sermons as a means of grounding a point in the patently-inarguable, and (sadly) to catch the attention of the congregation; and it is used by many as a touchstone for discussions about the creation and history of, not to mention the defense of, the state of Israel. One Jewish philosopher, Emil Fackenheim, has even gone so far as to suggest an amendment to Maimonides’ 613 commandments, offering up a 614th that enshrines the ongoing defeat of Hitler as a posthumous religious principle. This one very human man, and the evil he created, has assumed as much power over Judaism as the many biblical figures upon whose foundation the religion previously rested.

Which brings us back to the World Trade Center site, and the people who might be called the “New Survivors.” In much the same way – and using many of the same “you cannot understand, therefore you cannot challenge” rhetorical tactics – the self-appointed representatives of the New Survivors have systematically fought about almost every element of the reconstruction of the site, asserting a similar kind of power over the project, and the memories of the other citizens of New York. It is the effort to create a cultural center on the WTC site, and the theoretical focus of the International Freedom Center in particular, that has drawn most of their ire, because they consider anything that might question either the attacks themselves, or their cause and subsequent effect to be, at base, an affront to the memory of the deceased. Who would want to challenge or offend the memory of these poor lost souls?

There are many ironies here. The site that was attacked was the workplace of a great many people, but it was also representative of American capitalism, both good and bad; that was, after all, why it was chosen as a target. The victims worked for a great range of business and did so in many different capacities, from high-earning financial marketeers to mid-level secretaries and security guards, down to waiters and janitors (not to mention the police- and firemen who also lost their lives). In death, the workers of the WTC have been united in a way that they never were in life. Moreover, they have been made to represent – unquestionably and unquestioningly – the systems, structures, and businesses that employed them. Indeed, the victims of 11 September are made to represent America, but only particular perspective on what it is to be American.

The New Survivors have created this pro-American, pro-capitalistic unity-in-death, and draw upon it to proclaim, loudly, that any person who dares to present a different perspective on the events of 11 September, or even on American history writ large, may not, nay cannot, be allowed to do so anywhere on that hallowed ground of the World Trade Center. To do so would defame the memory of the dead. They refuse to look further, to acknowledge the vagaries of capitalism, to raise legitimate questions about why the victims died, and whether their deaths might have been as much the result of our government’s failures as of the terrorists’ own murderous goals. To show art that has political content, to present even the sympathetic responses of humans around the globe – as the Freedom Center proposes – any and all of this is simply too much for the New Survivors.

Thus the biggest irony of all: a terrorist attack predicated on a hatred of American liberty, freedom, diversity, and the power that has resulted from this happy combination of qualities, has provoked the New Survivors to squash any notion that such liberty, freedom, or diversity should or could ever be represented at the WTC site. The Drawing Center was the first institutional victim to fall afoul of the New Survivors; although this small, arts institution has yet to move downtown (there being, four years later, nothing to move to), the intimation that an art center of their ilk might someday show art that does not mesh with the perspectives of the New Survivors was enough to push them out of the process. Other non-profits currently remain in the mix and may yet survive the shift from planning to construction, but that assumes they agree to toe the line of history laid out by the victims’ families.

Somewhat courageously, the International Freedom Center has argued that this Maoist-style approach to the past and the future – that there is only one, official, and correct view of America – is rather contrary to the point, and its leaders have pursued with vigor the belief that the Center’s inclusion will be a fitting testimonial to some of America’s greatest qualities. Whether they survive this process remains to be seen, but if they fail then surely the other cultural organizations will fail as well. Nothing and no one short of (perhaps) George W. Bush could survive the New Survivors’ ideological litmus test; Bush could pass only because he lacks even the limited capacity for self-doubt that seems present among the most vocal of these New Survivors.


Disclosures, intellectual and otherwise: First, this is an imperfect analogy. The trauma of both groups is very real, and yet completely unequal and unalike. The Holocaust Survivors are by definition people for whom the Holocaust was experienced first-hand. The surviving family and friends of the WTC victims on the other hand, are by and large just that: family and friends, rather than the people who went through the trauma of the attacks and escaped the collapsing towers themselves.[2] The Holocaust Survivors are also generally united in their persecution: they were Jewish. For the New Survivors of the WTC attacks, the only common thread is the location of the deceased and, generally, their reason for having been there in the first place. Where the Jews of the Holocaust were chosen because of their Judaism, the dead of 11 September were chosen almost by accident, coincidence, linked together because they were here, in America, at the World Trade Center, or the Pentagon, or on a particular set of airplanes. So, again, the analogy is flawed.

There is little question, too, that I find the idea of creating a vaguely-defined cultural center in Lower Manhattan to be absurd. It isn’t that having cultural organizations downtown is a bad idea – there are many already – only that they should grow there naturally, rather than be artificially transplanted in an effort (in part) to justify the enormous expense of rebuilding on the site in the first place. The WTC site may be a ghoulish tourist attraction, but few would venture there specifically for the pleasure of an exhibition of drawings (political or not) or an evening of theater; it is not where the action is, so to speak. Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars building homes for these organizations, why not put that money into a fund to support homegrown artistic and cultural growth in Lower Manhattan? Perhaps some day, one of those organizations might become large enough to justify – at its own expense, and through the support of its patrons – the creation of a permanent home on the WTC site.

Still, if building a cultural center is what the planners want to do, then they should not be restrained from that mission simply on the charge that free artistic expression is an implicit challenge to the memory and loss of the victims of those terrorist attacks. That is a deeply flawed argument, one that is as disrespectful of the meaning of America as the attacks themselves. Which is why perhaps worst of all is the stench given off by squabbles such as this one; there are usually no real winners. The American public loses implicitly, both because we will not have the benefit of the organizations that have been excluded from this redevelopment on such flimsy grounds, because we must endure the very public embarrassment of the fight itself, and because key American values thus go undefended against attacks by our own people. And the New Survivors, they may be victorious in locking down the history and memory of the WTC attacks – temporarily – but they will certainly lose in the long-run. For better or worse, the unstoppable passage of time is claiming the Holocaust Survivors, and with them will go, slowly, the limited world view that placed those horrible moments of their lives at the forefront of the contemporary Jewish experience. Eventually, so too will New Yorkers, and all Americans, be freed from the grip of the memories and demands of this most vocal group of contemporary victims. The New Survivors cannot control history forever.

[1] There are a number of powerful and well-written books that address a changing perspective on the Holocaust, including Norman G. Finkelstein's The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering and Yehuda Bauer's Rethinking the Holocaust. I have also addressed this subject in passing in a few articles, including: Israeli Elections, American Distractions, Intellectual Cousins, and Blame the Jews.
[2] In fact, in some way all of us who were here in New York on that day are “survivors” - none of us knew at the time what was happening, or whether the attacks on our city were limited to two airplanes and two towers.
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