At New York's ground zero, where religion gone mad killed 2,749 people on Sept. 11, 2001, an annoying and avoidable dispute has arisen.
In brief, it is this: Will the World Trade Center Memorial be a place to learn about what happened there and commemorate the people who died or will it be a platform for learning about such matters as the Polish Solidarity movement, Martin Luther King Jr. and, as one official put it, "great sacrifices that have been made on behalf of a free and open society"?
This debate should end. The 9/11 memorial should be about 9/11 so that the world has a place to focus on the evil events of that day and the precious lives -- including my own nephew's -- lost to the carcinoma of radical Islam.
But the planning of memorial aspects of ground zero has lost its focus. As things stand now, the rebuilt World Trade Center site will include not only skyscrapers and shops, but four cultural institutions: The International Freedom Center, the Joyce Theater International Dance Center, Signature Theatre Company and a fine arts drawing center.
The International Freedom Center plans to use its exhibition space to "honor humanity's march toward freedom and highlight America's role as a beacon of freedom throughout the world." Those words and the "great sacrifices" quote come from Tom A. Bernstein, the Freedom Center's co-founder and chairman.
Complaints from families
Various organizations made up of 9/11 families (none of which I belong to -- see www.takebackthememorial.org) have protested the Freedom Center's plans to use its ground zero space for such an expansive purpose. In response, Bernstein said recently that his group has "taken a step back" to consider the complaints.
And John Whitehead, chairman of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, said his agency was taking "one last look" at various alternatives, though he seemed to forecast the result by saying it's "not likely" that another location for the Freedom Center will be found.
In fact, it's not the center's location that's the main problem. If it were to focus solely on 9/11, I doubt that any family members would object. Nor is it wrong for the center to want to tell important freedom stories that all of us should know. Our widespread historical ignorance makes that telling necessary.
But the ground zero memorial should be about what happened there in the 2001 terrorist attacks and the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. In display space about that, I would be happy for visitors to find a modest sign that said something like this: "To learn more about how what happened here fits into a broader picture of ideas that free and open societies promote, please visit exhibition space at (some nearby location)." Period.
Distracting visitors to the ground zero memorial with tales of Abraham Lincoln and the Holocaust and Jim Crow laws is simply foolish. Not only would it diminish the effort to describe events and causes of the 1993 and 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, it also would dilute efforts to help people understand what they simply must know about Lincoln, the Nazis and the post-Civil War South if they are to be informed citizens.
It is hard enough to understand the enormity of what happened at ground zero without distracting people with other matters. In fact, we as a culture haven't done nearly enough to unpack the causes and meaning of terrorism that roots itself in religion.
We haven't yet identified as much as we can about what contributes to religious violence. We haven't thought through how to move people from a deep commitment to the lies of radically twisted religion to a willingness to live and let live. We don't know yet whether the spiritual sickness of violent religious fanaticism is a permanent part of modern life or simply a passing phase.
If planners of the World Trade Center memorial want to stretch out what they offer visitors beyond the artifacts and stories of 1993 and 2001, they might think about creating thoughtful and engaging exhibits that would begin at least to ask some of those questions.
Let museums in Gdansk and Gettysburg and Birmingham and Berlin teach us about Solidarity and Lincoln and civil rights and the Shoah.
When I go to ground zero, I want to remember my nephew and understand better the fanatics who killed him.
X Bill Tammeus is a columnist for The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.