September 11, 2011

Trade Center cross is not about religion

Photo by Samuel Li
When this story first appeared on Facebook, my debunker's alarm went off. The story is so outrageous, it defies belief. Atheists had sued to prevent an I-beam cross from the World Trade Center site from being displayed at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

Outrageous, but true.

An ABC news story quotes Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, as saying: "It just so happens that the WTC was made out of T-joints and they found a T-joint. They put it in the church, kept in the church for years, prayed over it, blessed it. You don't get to do that just in the coincidence that your icon looks like a T-joint."

Why not?

Silverman described what actually happened. The cross was found at the site on Sept. 13 by Frank Silecchia, a New York City Fire Department worker. He found comfort in the sight of that T-joint, as did many others.

Silverman and his comrades seem to believe that freedom of religion, which includes the freedom to abstain from religion, requires the removal of all signs of religion from public life. This is patently foolish. In a country where we are guaranteed not only the freedom of religion but also the freedom of expression, those who find comfort in the shape of a T-joint have the right to express their faith and the right to have the evidence of that expression entered in the nations' historical record.

Ultimately, then, the fight over this T-joint isn't about freedom of religion, or even freedom of speech. It's about history.

Jan Ramirez is the museum's chief curator. It is her responsibility -- and no one else's -- to decide which artifacts belong there and which don't. Silverman has no business telling her how to do her job. Ramirez must make her decisions based on the historical record.

A museum's purpose is to preserve memories and tell stories. Ramirez and her staff are tasked with ensuring that the museum records what happened on Sept. 11 and in the days that followed. That Silecchia found a T-joint, and that he and others found it meaningful, is part of the World Trade Center story and deserves to be told.