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Salon: 9/11 widow: The media duped us

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As I watch other victims argue over Park51, I feel like reporters turned us into the experts we never were

Alissa Torres

The first time I heard about the Park51 Islamic community center was on May 6, 2010, when I received the following e-mail from a New York TV reporter:

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“I’m doing story today about the proposed mosque project at the WTC site. I am interviewing the developers but I am also trying to look for family members who think building a mosque at the site is a bad idea.”

“Bad idea” — that was a bit leading, wasn’t it? I always thought journalists were supposed to be objective, and yet, here we were, the “victims of 9/11,” being prodded for our outrage. An hour later, another e-mail arrived, this time from CNN. The language was more measured: “As a family member of someone who was killed in the attacks on 9/11, what do you think about the decision to construct a mosque this close to Ground Zero?”

These e-mails came through the “9/11 List-Serv,” which community activist Arnie Korotkin has voluntarily maintained since September 2001, sending 5,000+ subscribers daily articles and news updates related to 9/11. There are also media requests, which come clearly marked as such. The listserv has evolved and expanded over the years, vastly simplifying the media process from those chaotic days right after 9/11, when journalists hunted us down. In October 2001, journalists contacted my Lamaze teacher at Beth Israel Hospital, hoping she’d refer them to a pregnant 9/11 widow who would allow them to televise her fatherless child’s birth.

I ignored that request. And this one, too.

What did I think about the decision to construct a “mosque” this close to ground zero? I thought it was a no-brainer. Of course it should be built there. I sometimes wonder if those people fighting so passionately against Park51 can fathom the diversity of those who died at ground zero. Do we think no Muslims died in the towers? My husband, Eddie Torres, killed on his second day of work at Cantor Fitzgerald while I was pregnant with our first child, was a dark-skinned Latino, often mistaken for Pakistani, who came here illegally from Colombia. How did “9/11 victim” become sloppy shorthand for “white Christian”? I wish someone would put out a list of all the ethnicities and religions and countries and economic levels of the victims. For all the talk of “remembering 9/11,” I wonder if we’ve missed the patriotic message entirely. So, in short: No, I did not think it was “a bad idea.”

But plenty of those 5,000+ subscribers did. And over the next four months, I saw the story spun into a national controversy, in which many of my fellow 9/11 victims played a leading role. E-mails poured in from newspapers and magazines and TV stations asking us to speak up, and we did: 9/11 victims came forward to argue for Park51, against Park51 — always referred to in that maddening, misleading shorthand “ground zero mosque.” Whether it was an evenhanded article (like Newsweek’s piece in which two mothers of firefighters shared their conflicting opinions) or any of the frustrating one-sided reports I’ve cringed over, it was hard to deny a whiff of Jerry Springer about this: All of us, in so much pain, duking it out in the public sphere. I felt saddened, confused. It used to be so meaningful to hear a victim’s voice. To listen to someone speak out. Nine years later, as I watched this spectacle unfold, 9/11 victim pitted against 9/11 victim, I had to wonder: Was it still?

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