Monday, January 14, 2002

The Statue Of Reality

In New York, they’re going to erect a statue honoring the firefighters who died in the September 11th attack. Certainly, that’s a noble group to honor, but the way they’re going about it is all wrong.

The sculpture will be based on the famous photo, taken by Tom Franklin of The Bergen Record, of the three firemen raising the US flag over the rubble at the World Trade Center on 9/11/01. In real life, the three firemen were white. In brass life, one of them will be white, one will be black, and one will be Hispanic.

This perfect example of political correctness gone wild was a joint decision by the sculptors, the company that owns the fire department headquarters building in Brooklyn where the statue will stand, and the FDNY. Their spokesman is quoted as saying, “ultimately a decision was made to honor no one in particular, but everyone who made the supreme sacrifice.”

If that’s the case, this isn’t the correct way to honor them. The idea isn’t bad, but the execution is.

What they’re doing is taking a single moment from that day, frozen forever in the shutter of a photographer’s camera, and altering that image. In other words, they’re creating a lie.

We have lived with enough lies in our history, from “your 401k is safe with Enron stock” all the way back to “Columbus discovered America.” Some of these historic lies have taken hundreds of years to repair, so why start a new one now?

For the sake of diversity, say those who made the decision. I’m all for diversity, tolerance, inclusion, and honoring those who deserve it, regardless of who or what they are. But I’m also for veracity.

One member of a group of black firefighters -- Kevin James -- thinks what they’re doing is good. He’s quoted as saying, “The symbolism is far more important than representing the actual people. I think the artistic expression of diversity would supersede any concern over factual correctness.”

Wrong! The truth is the truth is the truth. You may interpret actions, you may interpret thoughts, you may interpret intentions. But you must never be subjective with the truth.

The fact is that these three men -– Dan McWilliams, George Johnson and Billy Eisengrein -– were white. If they’re making a statue of them, or what they did, they can’t change that. What’s next, sculpting the Twin Towers as pyramids?

I’m no sculptor, so I don’t even know how you show ethnic differences in a statue. Unless you resort to emphasizing racial stereotypes in their features, doesn’t everyone’s skin color end up bronze?

To their credit, the three firefighters have not exploited their moment of fame. We haven’t seen them all over the newsmagazines, talk shows, and tabloids. I’ll bet they’re not too thrilled with the notion of being immortalized this way, but if it’s going to be them, it should be them!

Perhaps they understand that what they did that day with that flag was not heroic. Yes, their endeavor was symbolic, as if these three men were acting out a new verse to the “Star Spangled Banner,” which still waves over the land of the free and the home of the brave. It proclaimed to our enemies that you can knock down our buildings but you can’t take away our freedom. That’s strong symbolism.

Yet the heroism of that day was not in raising that flag on that pole. It was in trying to save the lives of the thousands of people in those buildings, and the rescue and recovery efforts that followed. The heroes were not just the 343 firefighters who died, but also the ones who selflessly served that day and lived.

If there is to be a statue to honor all the firefighters, it should depict several firefighters, including all the ethnicities, races, and genders (hey, you forgot the women!!) that make up the FDNY. Have them standing side by side with their heads bowed, holding their helmets over their hearts, as if looking down at fallen comrades. There’s your diversity, there’s your symbolism, there’s your memorial.

Change the shape of the bronze, not the texture of the truth.

Editor's note: five days after this column was published, the Fire Department of New York cancelled plans for the statue based on the firefighters raising the flag.