World Trade memorial strains to value

Monday, May 5, 2003 at 12:00am

And they're off! As the race officially began Monday for artists to submit designs for the World Trade Center Memorial, a fiery fax campaign was under way to protest guidelines that prohibit designs from distinguishing between heroes and victims.

The controversial guideline, listed among several on the memorial design Web site (www.renewnyc.com), calls for recognition of victims that will "honor the loss of life equally and the contributions of all without establishing any hierarchies."

In other words, no mention of rank or affiliation, just the names. Firefighters who stormed into burning buildings are to be treated the same as the people they were trying to save.

Once again, our American goal of equality seems to have been distorted beyond what is reasonable. Pardon the blunt instrument, but being a victim is not necessarily heroic; whereas, placing one's life at risk to help others surely is.

We seem to have a problem with that distinction. But we know better. We saw events as they occurred in real time, and no amount of massaging the facts will change what we know. But what about future generations who visit the memorial site? Wouldn't they be curious to know which of the named were sitting at their desks sipping coffee when the planes hit and which were racing into the buildings to save lives? To leave off the identities of these fallen seems not just a weird stab at equal treatment, but borders on deception by omission. It seems and feels untrue.

Some firefighters and their families are hurt by the memorial board's refusal to budge. A few weeks ago, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. vetoed a request by New York City firefighters to have a separate recognition of rescue workers. Meanwhile, Janet Roy of Pompano Beach, Fla., whose firefighter brother died on Sept. 11, has joined her other brother in a fax alert campaign to enlist support for including titles and affiliations.

As between listing her brother as simply William F. Burke Jr. or as FDNY Capt. William F. Burke Jr., Engine 21, Roy asks: "Which gives the accurate picture of what Billy was that day?

"Visitors to the site and future generations with no memory of the event will learn nothing of who Billy Burke was, and how and why he died. A memorial that does not recognize or honor how and why Billy died does not honor him. Rather it demeans the sacrifice he chose and the honor he served."

Roy hopes the memorial board will decide to list victims' names under the company, government agency, union or other organization they worked for. "My belief is if you list them by company, visitors will gain a greater understanding of the tragedy. Who couldn't help but be moved when they see 650 names under Cantor Fitzgerald?"

Moreover, while we may all be the same in the beginning and in the end, there's a vast in-between where some escape the crab pot and perform remarkably, grandly, even nobly. Those who died that day weren't all equal in their "roles," for lack of a better word. Some were hustling, bustling, gut-busting human machines forging against horror and terror into the maw of their own near-certain deaths. What could be wrong with identifying them as such?

We should be erecting and naming buildings after them, and yet we hesitate even to assign their titles accurately. Next we'll be dropping first names lest we give away gender and invite all the "unfair" inferences that would follow.

The memorial board may have been motivated by the best of intentions, but the rescuers from Sept. 11 deserve, at the very least, the honor of their titles in memorial repose. It seems a small token in exchange for their extraordinary lives.

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.

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