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Jewish World Review Jan. 21 , 2002/ 8 Shevat, 5762

Don Feder

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Statue controversy a hopeful sign? -- HAS America finally had it with racial representation? The decision to scrap a controversial design for a statute honoring the sacrifices of New York firefighters, is a hopeful sign.

The day after the World Trade Center attack, three firemen -- Dan McWilliams, George Johnson and Billy Eisengrein -- raised the American flag at ground zero. Their act, which inspired a nation, was captured in a now-famous news photo.

The Fire Department of New York is planning to erect a statue at its headquarters commemorating the firefighters, living and dead, who performed so admirably in that dark hour.

Regrettably, for those with a race fetish, all three firemen have pale skins.

So, a planned $180,000 monument -- which was to be erected outside the Fire Department's Brooklyn headquarters -- while recreating the scene in the photograph, would have made one of the firefighters black and another Hispanic. I'm only surprised they didn't want to make one of them gay and put another in a wheelchair, to maximize the tokenism.

After an outcry by the city's firefighters (more than 1,000 signed a petition circulated by Steve Cassidy of Engine Company 236) late last week, the original design was withdrawn.

The firefighters' feelings were summed up by Carlo Casoria. "They're rewriting history," charged Casoria, whose son Thomas was one of 343 firemen who died at the World Trade Center.

The proposed memorial was an attempt to rewrite history in the worst tradition of a totalitarian state. We're becoming like Stalin's Russia, where non-persons were airbrushed out of photos. The statues' designers wanted to airbrush out the race of two firemen, to conform with the culture's demand for inclusiveness at all costs.

From Martin Luther King's dream of an America where people are judged by the content of their character, we've descended to a nation where the most important thing you can say about someone is that they're black, Hispanic, Jewish, a woman, etc. Forget personal attributes. Race alone is pertinent.

The civil rights movement that began as a drive for equal treatment and a recognition of individual merit has ended in obsessive calculation and a ceaseless quest for racial balance.

We count the race of college students, employees -- even characters on prime-time television -- to ensure that minorities are adequately represented. Of course, we know it's impossible for people to identify with a noble soul of another color.

You would have thought that Sept. 11 would unite us as a people. Initial reports told of thousands of Americans dead. I have yet to see a breakdown of victims by race. Those who died weren't targeted as African-Americans or Asian-Americans. Osama bin Laden and his butchers wanted to kill Americans, period. Hyphens were irrelevant.

Rescuers who rushed into the flames did not do their duty as black or white firefighters, but as individuals who kept faith with their trust. Victims weren't rescued on a quota basis to satisfy someone's sense of "racial justice."

Does anyone care about the race of the Marines depicted in the statue of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima, based on one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century? In fact, one of them, Ira Hayes, was a Pima Indian.

Still, dogmas die hard. Lt. Paul Washington, president of an association of black firemen, says whatever monument is eventually installed must recognize the 12 black firefighters who lost their lives.

Why can't we honor brave men as individuals, rather than representatives of their tribe -- white, black or Hispanic. Race is an accident of birth, courage is a conscious choice. Such misplaced symbolism succeeds only in fragmenting the nation at a time when we should be uniting.

The Stars and Stripes the firemen raised represent the original 13 colonies, the 50 states and our unity as a people -- not races. While Americans come in all colors, patriotism has no special hue -- neither does duty or honor.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest books are Who is afraid of the Religious Right? ($15.95) and A Jewish conservative looks at pagan America ($9.95). To receive an autographed copy, send a check or money order to: Don Feder, The Boston Herald, 1 Herald Sq., Boston, Mass. 02106. Doing so will help fund JWR, if so noted. He is also available as a guest speaker. To comment on this column please click here.

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© 2002, Creators Syndicate