Freefall 

Trouble at the International Un-Freedom Center

These are boom times for abstraction. For almost four years now, freedom, justice, terror, evil, courage, and other such powerful nouns have dominated the national discourse, nowhere more so than at Ground Zero, the inexhaustible wellspring for all this high-minded sentiment. Politicians of every stripe have long been addicted to their own Churchillian echoes, and the flow of principles is by now conventional. We all know that (sing along with me) freedom was attacked on that day, the terrorists hate freedom and liberty, we must bring them to justice, justice will prevail, evil will not prevail, because we have declared war on terror, for which we, being good, have the necessary courage. The President’s Second Inaugural was famously composed of about 20 words, recombined over and over to give the effect of variation.

So it seemed natural last year when the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) selected the International Freedom Center as one of the four cultural institutions for the new WTC. Details about the center have always been vague, but the IFC certainly wasn’t chosen for the details. Along with the Signature Theatre, Joyce International Dance Center, and Drawing Center, which are straightforward enough, the IFC was going to be, well, a center for freedom. Their mission statement promised to “strengthen our resolve to preserve freedom, and inspire an end to hatred, ignorance, and intolerance.” Exactly how wasn’t clear, but no one was prepared to make a public stand against something called the International Freedom Center, any more than they were to be seen sporting a beard, turban, and Kalashnikov.

But the IFC had more behind it than a beguiling name. The main backer is Tom Bernstein, the President of Chelsea Piers. The Chairman of Chelsea Piers is Roland Betts, who also sits on the LMDC Board of Directors. Betts also happens to be buddies with President Bush, with whom he assembled investors to purchase the Texas Rangers in 1989. Not coincidentally, Bernstein was a high profile fundraiser for Bush, and he’s also close to Bloomberg. Altogether, it would be hard to find someone in the city better connected than Tom Bernstein. That’s how a center that doesn’t exist beats out dozens of other cultural organizations for one of four spots.

On May 19, the LMDC unveiled the design for the Cultural Center, the building directly adjacent to the Memorial that will contain both the IFC and the Drawing Center. Along with it came more details about the IFC: visitors could look forward to features like the Freedom Walk, Freedom Sites, Freedom Hot Spots, a Freedom’s Future space, a Gallery of Nations, etc. A little bit about Soviet gulags here, India’s caste system there, sprinkle in some Nazis, then flash a picture of MLK, Jr. and you get the idea; freedom is good, and sometimes bad people take away the freedom until they are defeated, usually by the United States. The IFC seemed profoundly uncontroversial.

But wait! Tom Bernstein is also the Board President of Human Rights First! And he’s given some money to Democrats! And he’s got all sorts of liberal advisors at the IFC, including Anthony Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU! And George Soros! “Leading universities” (read: traitorous professors) will help provide some of the programming! George Soros!

Suddenly, the idea of freedom was in peril of being complicated. Something had to be done. And so, on June 6, nearly a year after the Freedom Center was awarded its place at the WTC, The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial, “The Great Ground Zero Heist.” The IFC was now a “multi-million-dollar insult.” The advisors behind it were “a Who’s Who of the human rights, Guantanamo-obsessed world” (in WSJ-speak, a bad thing). These proud members of the fifth column were “salivating at the prospect” of the perfect platform “to promote their agenda.” The piece ended, “Ground Zero has been stolen, right from under our noses. How do we get it back?”

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