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

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Consumer Reports

Three white guys and a flag: symbols or truth? -- TOO soon I spoke when shortly after the 9-11 terrorist attacks I penned an obit for political correctness. Noting that we're again a serious people with serious purposes, I said we no longer had the time or inclination for political correctness, which I defined as "camouflaging Truth to protect the psyches of the silly."

Four months later, alas, we're at it again. This time we're reinventing a historic moment in a perfunctory bow to the gods of diversity. Specifically, we're reinventing the photographic instant when three New York City firefighters raised an American flag atop a pile of rubble at Ground Zero.

The scene was captured by photographer Tom Franklin of The Record of Bergen County, N.J. Franklin's image is now being reproduced as a 19-foot statue to be erected at the Fire Department's Brooklyn headquarters to memorialize the 343 fire fighters who died on Sept. 11.

With one notable difference. The three firemen are still men (an oversight, I'm sure), but they're no longer white. Now they're of various ethnicities and hues - white, black and Hispanic - to better reflect the ethnic content of the department.

Many New York City firefighters and their families are upset by the falsification of real events. It's not about race, they say; it's about reality. If the three firefighters had been black, would we have changed the faces to reflect more accurately the diversity of those who died that day?

Cry havoc, indeed. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton would have to be sedated or possibly cryogenically frozen until, well, let's just leave that open, shall we?

The decision to alter reality was made by several groups, including the New York Fire Department, the studio making the statue and the company that owns the department's headquarters.

Not everyone sees a problem with the faux diversification. Some say the symbolism is what matters, not the actual people.

I'm all for symbolism. I love symbolism. But I love truth more. And the problem with changing the races of the men who were photographed raising the flag is that it's not true. It's not factual. It didn't happen that way. Why does it matter? It matters because truth always matters. In fact, it's all that matters.

As for symbolism, changing the faces of the three firefighters is hugely symbolic. It makes clear that we value symbols more than we value truth. The truth includes the fact that of the city's 11,500 firefighters, 2.7 percent are black and 3.2 percent are Hispanic. Not to niggle over numbers, but even a mathematically challenged person such as myself knows that 2.7 isn't one-third of anything.

Once you start slicing and dicing truth, there's no end to it. And once you become comfortable with little adjustments to truth, a tweak here and a tweak there, you begin not to notice when truth disappears altogether. Where truth is absent, tyranny reigns. Such, ultimately, is the loathsome promise of political correctness.

But it's only a statue, you say, just a little thing no worse than a white lie (pardon the exclusion). If it makes people feel better, what's the harm? It's not the symbol, darling. It's what the symbol stands for, which isn't truth. If not truth, then what if not a lie?

The firefighters captured by the camera - Dan McWilliams, George Johnson and Billy Eisengrein - have been prudently silent. But their attorney, Bill Kelly, says the men are "disappointed," and has written a letter asking that production of the statue be halted.

In fairness, this may be a case of good intentions gone awry. The fact is, we are a diverse nation, and people of many races and hues died by the terrorists' hand that day. But honoring those people shouldn't require appropriating the glory of others.

Perhaps a more fitting tribute would be another sort of memorial like the Vietnam "Wall." Symbolically, that would say more about our nation than the faces of any man or woman. Names on a wall, without any other identifying features, say we're all essentially the same, one people, which, of course, we are.

What we are not are the three white guys who raised the flag on a 20-foot pile of rubble that day. And that's the truth, like it or not.

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.

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