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Jewish World Review Jan. 16, 2002 / 3 Shevat 5762

Deroy Murdock

Deroy Murdock
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Consumer Reports

FDNY chisels away the truth -- NEW YORK | Fifty years ago, author Ralph Ellison published his landmark novel "Invisible Man." It concerns a black man who virtually disappears as white people look right through him. "I am invisible," Ellison's anonymous character explains, "simply because people refuse to see me."

Fifty years later, the Fire Department of New York has turned Ellison's idea on its head. The FDNY commissioned Brooklyn's StudioEis to produce a statue for its headquarters based on the now world-famous photo of firemen Billy Eisengrein, George Johnson and Dan McWilliams hoisting the American flag at Ground Zero the afternoon of September 11. The FDNY asked for one modification to Hackensack Record photographer Thomas E. Franklin's stirring image: the three white firemen now have become one white, one black and one Hispanic.

Exceeding Ellison's nightmare, two of the white firefighters are worse than invisible. They have been erased and replaced by make-believe firemen of color who did not actually stand atop the shifting, smoldering rubble and unfurl Old Glory. The FDNY, of all agencies, has added to the monumental pain and suffering of its personnel, 343 of whom were killed at the Twin Towers. While two of the three men in the photograph basically have been defaced, other firemen and the survivors of their deceased colleagues also must endure an ethnic controversy rather than simply enjoy the immeasurable appreciation of a nation humbled by their selflessness.

Real estate developer Bruce Ratner is paying $180,000 for this sculpture. Asked by the Associated Press' Stephanie Gaskell to address this flap, Ratner said: "Questions about race or ethnicity played no part in the brave deeds firefighters performed on September 11, and it does a disservice to the memory of the thousands lost that day to raise such issues." Of course, the whole question of race first was raised by those who demanded a statue that literally shades the truth.

Amazingly enough, this fiasco arises even as the bodies of firemen still are being pulled from the rubble. The body of Thomas Schoales was found at Ground Zero last week, some four months after the terrorist Attack on America. The 27-year-old is only the second of 14 murdered members of Engine Company 4 on South Street to be recovered so far.

Even as so many of these fearless heroes remain in the ruins, this statue assaults reality on several levels. Obviously, the three men portrayed in the work are not actually multiethnic. Those who raised that flag happen to be, through no fault of their own, white.

Still, the FDNY wanted a piece that reflected the diversity of those who rescued so many in Lower Manhattan. But here, too, the statue is a distortion. According to the New York Daily News, of the FDNY's 11,495 firefighters, 2.7 percent are black while Hispanics compose 3.2 percent of the force. By intimating that the FDNY is one-third black and one-third Hispanic, this statue masks the fact that the FDNY - for better, worse or neither - is whiter than the city it serves. One would think the diversity crowd would not want the FDNY to misrepresent itself so easily as a gallant rainbow.

However, a spokesman for a black firefighters' group called the Vulcan Society told the New York Post that he hoped the statue's "artistic expression of diversity would supersede any concern over factual correctness." Those remarks recall a pivotal scene in George Orwell's "1984." Winston, the novel's protagonist, sits at his desk in the Ministry of Truth, frustrated over Big Brother's tireless efforts to substitute facts with politically correct myths. "The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears," Winston complains to himself. "It was their final, most essential command."

The FDNY would be on firmer ground had it simply commissioned a representational statue to herald the contributions of its members from various backgrounds. An imaginary image of three firemen - white, black and Hispanic - running intrepidly toward the towers could be beautiful and inspirational.

Such a symbolic depiction of the FDNY's service that wretched morning would venerate so many who made the ultimate sacrifice. But by ordering a bronze bastardization of Tom Franklin's photo, the FDNY has created not an object of honor, but a bright, shining lie.

JWR contributor Deroy Murdock is a New York-based commentator and columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2001, Deroy Murdock