How One Right-Winger Tried to Take Over the Legacy of 9/11
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When George Bush’s reelection campaign ran ads containing footage of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Debra Burlingame’s ire was directed not at Bush’s admen but at “9/11 family members” whose relatives had been killed. These people, said Burlingame, “enjoy the cloak of deference that has been graciously conferred upon them by the public, politicians and, most significantly, the media.” The charge carried some heft: as sister of Charles Burlingame, pilot of the doomed American Airlines flight that slammed into the Pentagon, she was herself the beneficiary of such deference -- particularly from the press.
This hasn’t changed a bit, even now, as Burlingame’s opposition to Park51 (frequently called the “Ground Zero Mosque” by the ignorant and bigoted alike) has made her a go-to source for pithy, cutting quotes. Thanks to the controversy over the unfunded, nonexistent and probably-never-to-be-built edifice, she regularly opines on the dangers of the proposed Islamic community center as well as subjects that are ostensibly out of her purview. For instance, any real knowledge she may have of Western philosophy (for much of the Muslim world “the enlightenment hasn't even happened yet,” which would be news to a certain G-20 democracy) and DOJ appointments (“...[Neal] Katyal is probably the best of the bunch”) is a well-kept secret.
According to LexisNexis, Burlingame was cited 87 times in August alone, a level of ubiquity even she might agree warrants a look under the cloak. Until now most of the attention paid to Burlingame has been forward-looking and coated with gauze. The New York Times profiled her in 2005 when she lobbied against the proposed International Freedom Center, but noted only that she “graduated from Cardozo, practiced law for two years, and spent five years at Court TV before moving to Los Angeles to start a production company.” Not a word about what kind of law Burlingame practiced, her duties at Court TV or what become of the production company. Also absent was a quote from the Center’s founders -- Chelsea Piers president Tom Bernstein and Dow Jones vice president Richard Tofel -- in response to Burlingame’s charge that “they're treating 9/11 like a 3,000-person car crash.” (Cardozo’s alumnae office says only that Burlingame was class of ‘93, and Turner Broadcasting System won’t comment on former Court TV employees.)
This is quite the kid gloves treatment for someone who in the three scrutiny-free years following 9/11 accomplished quite a lot. In fact, a review of her record past and present suggests that Burlingame uses her survivor’s patina for purposes that are occasionally admirable. More often than not, though, she resembles a political operative who frequently exploits the trauma of 9/11 at the expense of the good name and reputation of her adversaries. (Burlingame did not respond to questions submitted by AlterNet.)
Ground Zero and the International Freedom Center
In hindsight, you can see the International Freedom Center controversy and Burlingame’s part in it coming a mile away. But at the time, questioning the credentials of IFC’s founder, real estate developer Tom Bernstein -- a longtime friend and former business partner of George W. Bush -- was strange.
Conceived in late 2001, the Center was modeled on the United States Holocaust Museum. The plans for Bernstein’s brainchild included “a gallery devoted to the world’s sympathetic response to the attacks, an exhibition on freedom-related political documents like the Declaration of Independence, and a salute to freedom fighters around the world.” Slated to be built along Ground Zero’s edge, the project was seen as vanilla enough for five Fortune 500 corporations (including American Express) to quickly commit to its funding.