A coalition of groups of Sept. 11 victims' family members is attempting to prevent two museums from becoming part of the development at Ground Zero, contending that the institutions will promote artwork critical of the United States.
The International Freedom Center and the Drawing Center, two museums selected as part of a proposed arts complex on the 16-acre site where the World Trade Center was destroyed in 2001, have drawn accusations that they are politically left of center and will invite controversy to what the families consider a sacred site.
The Drawing Center has been scrutinized after recent installations that depicted the well-publicized image of a hooded detainee at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and linked President Bush to Osama bin Laden. The International Freedom Center, which exists only on paper, is the target of allegations that its left-leaning leadership will use the museum as a bully pulpit.
At Ground Zero, the International Freedom Center plans to mount exhibits that document the history of struggles for freedom around the world. The Drawing Center, which is based in SoHo, will exhibit a variety of artists' works.
Representatives of 14 groups of victims' families fear that the exhibitions, regardless of political slant, are inappropriate for a place they consider a cemetery.
"This is not a place we should be dedicating to other social or political issues," said Mary Fetchet, executive director of Voices of September 11. "The space should be dedicated to honoring the people who died that day and telling the story of 9/11."
Last week, coalition members traveled to Washington to appeal to Congress and Bush for help. Earlier, an estimated 200 family members staged a demonstration at Ground Zero.
New York Gov. George E. Pataki (R) responded to the families' demands by telling the two museums they must "guarantee" to observe the "sanctity of the site" and that exhibits should not offend victims' families or visitors.
"We will not tolerate anything on that site that denigrates America, denigrates New York or freedom or denigrates the sacrifice and courage that the heroes showed on September 11th," Pataki told reporters in Albany last month.
The city's tabloids have lobbed political grenades into the fray with headlines such as "Nutty 9/11 Art Nixed" alongside a photo of a sullen Pataki. The New York Post ran a full-page editorial calling for donations to the Sept. 11 memorial to be withheld.
Tom Bernstein, president of the International Freedom Center, said the museum will respect the loss of life that occurred at the site. He said the center will become "a living memorial" that fosters learning and discussion.
"We hope to look at some of the epic moments when the human spirit prevailed and triumphed," he said.
In a published statement, the Drawing Center vowed to resolve the "tensions" but added that it must remain faithful to its artistic mission. Museum representatives did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Plans for a cultural center at the site were included in the original design by architect Daniel Libeskind. At the time, Pataki called the cultural center a "lasting tribute to freedom." The museums would be housed near an underground memorial to the 1993 and 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.
Two years ago, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., the city-state agency charged with developing the site, invited cultural groups to apply for space at Ground Zero. A jury selected the two museums, along with a dance and theater group that will be housed in a separate building.
The victims' families first voiced their concerns about the two museums in May, shortly before the development corporation released final designs for the cultural center.
The uproar began after the Wall Street Journal published an opinion column by Debra Burlingame, whose brother, Charles F. Burlingame III, was a pilot on the hijacked plane that struck the Pentagon. Burlingame warned that the cultural centers will deliver "a slanted history lesson, a didactic lecture on the meaning of liberty in a post-9/11 world."
She noted that Bernstein sits on the board of Human Rights First, an organization that is part of a lawsuit against Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. The suit contends that Rumsfeld is personally responsible for abuse of military detainees.
Burlingame added that reflections on freedom will invite protest and political feuding. " 'Freedom' is a loaded word for people, like 'patriot,' " she said in an interview. "When you hear the term 'freedom,' everyone plugs in their own term."
Bernstein, who is also a former co-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team with Bush and a contributor to Bush's campaigns, said the project's advisers run the ideological gamut from Anthony Romero, director of the American Civil Liberties Union, to John Raisian, a director and fellow at the Hoover Institution. The project's vice chairman is the widow of a Sept. 11 victim.
"We are trying to build something for the ages that is not mired in the politics of the moment," Bernstein said.
The issue has become divisive even among victims' families. A poll by the group Families of September 11 found its 1,400 members evenly split on the issue. Colleen Kelly, the New York director of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, said that she understands the concern about the two museums but that changing the plan would require an overhaul of the entire site.
"Then we'd have to rethink everything down there," Kelly said. "It would mean no Freedom Center, it would mean no Freedom Tower."
From the beginning of the redevelopment effort, the various stakeholders -- developers, government officials and family groups -- have wrangled over how to memorialize the human loss at Ground Zero. Since the attacks, the site has become a political symbol often linked to the war in Iraq.
"The term 'freedom' has been grafted onto the site," said Joshua Brown, executive director of the American Social History Project at the City of New York Graduate Center. "One of the beliefs is that their lives were sacrificed in the 'cause of freedom.' "
Bernstein said his center will give context to the term "freedom" and the sacrifices and struggle that people have made for it throughout history.
"9/11 was enough of a history event," counters Burlingame. "If you wanted to send a message, which is an end to hate and intolerance, this story is enough."
Researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.