Atheists' misguided fight over the 9/11 memorial

A battle over an artifact becomes a religious fight

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 7, 2014 7:35PM (EST)

The World Trade Center Cross, before it is transported to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.    (Reuters/Chip East)
The World Trade Center Cross, before it is transported to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. (Reuters/Chip East)

In the battle between organizations whose main principles I often agree with and whose tantrums and publicity whore tactics regularly make me want to punch a wall, it's usually a toss-up between PETA and American Atheists. But this week, you win, American Atheists.

The organization went to court this week to argue that a cross-shaped steel beam salvaged from the wreckage of the twin towers should not be part of the national 9/11 museum and memorial, which is scheduled to officially open in May. "It's necessary to fight this because this is inequality on government property," says American Atheists president David Silverman. To quote Gru from "Despicable Me," "Whaaaaaaat?"

Construction worker Frank Silecchia pulled the beam from the ruins of the towers shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and had the 17-foot-tall, 4,000-pound cross cut from it. It became in the days immediately following the tragedy an impromptu memorial, and a gathering place for people to leave messages and prayers. Silecchia said at the time, "When I first saw it, it took my heart, and made me cry for about 20 minutes. It helped me heal the burden of my despair, and gave me closure on the whole catastrophe." It was subsequently blessed by ground zero chaplain Father Brian Jordan.

And because of that, Ken Bronstein of New York City Atheists says, "What we have here is a definite consecrated religious object. It is not a historical artifact." Attorney Edwin F. Kagin adds that the cross "violates the First Amendment because atheists are not represented equally." And the atheists have requested that if the cross is not removed, there be a plaque noting that "Atheists died here, too." But last year, Judge Deborah A. Batts ruled that the cross and its display "help demonstrate how those at ground zero coped with the devastation they witnessed during the rescue and recovery effort," and called it a "historical and secular" piece.

An appeals court heard the atheist case Thursday. On Thursday evening, Megyn Kelly had the group's president, David Silverman, on Fox's "Kelly Files" to ask him, "Is it a little disingenuous to claim that atheists in your group are suffering dyspepsia and headaches as a result of seeing that cross included in the museum?" Silverman said that it's not so much about the inclusion of the cross but the exclusion of a similar tribute to 9/11's atheist victims, but added, "I'm not surprised they're suffering symptoms ... I get a headache when I think we're being discriminated against by the World Trade Center memorial." I don't know if you actually hear my eyes rolling right now, but believe me they are. Earlier in the segment, Kelly told Silverman flat out, "You lost. You lost. You lost … Doesn't sound like you had the greatest day today." American Atheists: The group that actually made me this week think for a moment, "You're damn right, Megyn Kelly."

A cross-shaped item can take on Christian meaning, no doubt. There's a 9/11 memorial featuring a similar cross from the wreckage of the towers in my neighborhood – and it's on the grounds of our parish church. That big original cross has deep symbolic meaning for many -- deep Christian meaning. But hey, that's what happened, historically. Silverman told Kelly Thursday, "We think the atheists who also died on 9/11, and the Muslims and the Jews, should all have their equal presence." But why? Did an equal number of atheists, Jews, Muslims and Christians die? And when did the idea that everybody should get an exact and equal portion, regardless of what's correct or what's historically accurate, become anything less than a stupid idea? You can honor all the lives lost on 9/11 without creating a false past in which we're supposed to conspicuously ignore an element of the story that conflicts with the beliefs of some groups. You really can. You do it by not assuming that what happened in the wake of an American disaster and the way that people dealt with unfathomable loss was an affront to your delicate sensibilities.

If you want to get offended over the placement of Christian imagery in a memorial to a historic event, you're going to be pissed off at a whole lot of museums and even more of history itself. That cross is part of what happened. It's part of the building that was destroyed and it's part of the experience of the people who worked on the recovery efforts afterward and it's part of the experience of the visitors who paid their respects after them. It just is. This isn't a school system trying to sneak Bibles into the classrooms.  This isn't the Ten Commandments in a courthouse. You want to fight against that religious infiltration into public life? I am on your side. You want to keep church and state separate? Me too. But you want to pitch a fit over an item that's a clear-cut part of the story because you don't like what it symbolizes? You're mad there's no 9/11 equivalent to that 17-foot cross because apparently nobody had the foresight to pull a satisfying secular symbol out of the wreckage? Please, just grow up. Because in this fight, you haven’t got a prayer.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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9/11 9/11 Memorial American Atheists Atheism World Trade Center