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Commentary

Airbrushing History With Divisiveness

January 18, 2002|JONATHAN TURLEY | Jonathan Turley is a professor of law at George Washington University.

It was an image that flashed across the world and became America's answer to those who would destroy us: Three New York firefighters--Dan McWilliams, George Johnson and Billy Eisengrein--raising an American flag over the smoking remains of the World Trade Center. Reminiscent of the flag-raising over Mt. Suribachi at Iwo Jima, the photo's power was due entirely to the fact that it was spontaneous and honest.

We discovered this week, however, that the photograph--taken by Thomas E. Franklin of the Record newspaper in Hackensack, N.J.--was not perfect. It seems that all three firefighters are white. With a memorial planned to recreate the historic moment, New York officials decided that the flag could remain, but the firefighters had to go. Two of the firefighters were to be replaced in the memorial sculpture with African American and Latino figures.

Despite the well-intentioned effort to reflect the array of races among these heroes, the change in the memorial succeeded in injecting race into a moment that had transcended such divisions. There is now an angry controversy in New York over the memorial design.

While officials easily could allow an accurate depiction combined with a more diverse background mural, they have steadfastly defended the decision to alter the firefighters, as has the Vulcan Society, an organization of African American firefighters.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 24, 2002 Home Edition California Part B Page 17 Metro Desk 2 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Turley commentary-In Jonathan Turley's Friday commentary, he said the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund was trying to receive federal money earmarked for Sept. 11 recovery. Actually, it is trying to direct the federal money to women. Also, the group's name is not the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 21, 2002 Home Edition California Part B Page 13 Metro Desk 2 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Female firefighters-In a Jan. 18 commentary by Jonathan Turley, a New York firefighter, Lt. Brenda Berkman, is quoted criticizing the fact that the work of female firefighters was not specifically noted in coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks and thus 'totally ignored' by the media. This statement was made by Berkman at a screening of the film 'Women at Ground Zero' and not in the film itself.

New York is finally returning to normalcy. After a period of inspiring unity and courage, various groups have stepped forward to remind citizens that they should resume class and racial tensions. One such group is the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund, which has launched a campaign to receive some of the federal rebuilding funds. NOW also has released a videotape that condemns the fact that media coverage did not single out female firefighters. In the video, Fire Lt. Brenda Berkman is shown complaining that women firefighters were "totally ignored"--by which she apparently means that the media failed to distinguish among heroes by gender.

The very power of the image of the heroes of ground zero has drawn those who would reshape it in their own image. The gender and racial blindness that prevailed after the attacks apparently threatened some groups with obsolescence. Faced with a diverse group of heroes, ground zero had to be mined for aggrieved heroes who would carry a banner of division.

Of course, the re-creation of history has long been an irresistible temptation. One of the most famous photographs of World War II--of Soviet soldiers hoisting the Red flag over the burned-out Reichstag in Berlin--was taken by Yevgeny Khaldei. In reality, the photograph was staged. After seeing Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal's Iwo Jima picture, Khaldei tried to create a similar scene, shooting the soldiers from various poses. Since the battle was over, he added columns of smoke in the background. He also removed wristwatches that appear on the arms of one of the soldiers, evidence of looting after the fall of Berlin.

Even the Iwo Jima photograph is not what is seemed. The actual flag that was first raised was a relatively small one, hoisted by Marines on a piece of old pipe found on the island. Rosenthal took a picture later of a much larger flag that cut a more inspiring image and became the basis for our memorial.

While all memorials can be viewed as interpretive, some are tied so closely to an event that artistic interpretation can constitute historical revision. The original picture of the Sept. 11 firefighters was honest and genuine, something that is often missing in today's manipulated and packaged society. Of course, most Americans did not see three white men in the original picture but three heroes. If this flag had been raised by three women or three African Americans, all firefighters would still be represented.

We now have a choice. We can reinstall the "corrective" lens of the politics of division. Or we can insist on seeing this profound event through our own eyes, remembering a transcendent moment in which a simple and spontaneous act by three firefighters lifted a nation above the twisted wreckage of ground zero.

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