Flight 93 memorial draws a new round of criticism

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Nearly two years after the design of the United Flight 93 Memorial was changed to eliminate any perceived Islamic symbolism, the father of one of the people killed in the crash has asked that his son's name be withheld from the monument.

"It's something I'd rather not do, but I can't get anyone to listen," said Tom Burnett Sr., of Northfield, Minn. "In a sense, I'm asking for a call to action."

Mr. Burnett, who served on the Stage II jury that picked the winning design originally named "Crescent of Embrace," said that he raised his concerns about using a crescent-shaped grouping of red maple trees around the crash site then.

"It's almost as though it's intentional," he said. "This design should not invoke any Islamic impression of any sort."

He called the crescent a well-known, widely accepted Muslim symbol that doesn't belong in a memorial honoring the 40 passengers and crew members who were killed on the flight headed from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco, on Sept. 11, 2001, in their efforts to thwart an attack on the capital.

When the concerns about the use of the crescent first arose, the designer of the memorial, Paul Murdoch, willingly changed the shape to an almost full circle.

But criticism, largely driven by online blogs, has continued.

Mr. Burnett has based many of his concerns in the theories put forth by conservative blogger, Alec Rawls, who has also written a book, "Crescent of Betrayal," on the matter.

On Mr. Rawls' Web site, errortheory.blogspot.com, he cites a number of examples of how he believes the Flight 93 memorial is really a monument to terrorists.

Among his allegations:

"A person facing into the giant central crescent of the Flight 93 Memorial is facing Mecca."

There are 44 glass blocks being used in the design, representing the 40 passengers and four terrorists who hijacked the plane.

The 93-foot tall Tower of Voices, which will include wind chimes to represent those who died, is an Islamic sundial. "Shadow calculations confirm that, on any day of the year, when the tower shadow reaches the inner arc of trees, it will be time for Islamic afternoon prayers."

All Mr. Burnett is looking for, he said, is a "thorough, honest investigation," of the design and those elements.

But personnel for the National Park Service, which will manage the memorial and 2,200 acre national park, have refuted each of the claims.

After Mr. Rawls' initial report came to light, they asked three independent scholars, including experts on architecture and religious studies, to review it.

"Alec Rawls bases all of his conclusions on faulty assumptions," said Joanne Hanley, the superintendent of the Flight 93 National Memorial. "In addition, the facts are twisted and people are misquoted, all to serve his intended purpose."

Daniel Griffith, a geospatial information sciences professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, said anything can point toward Mecca, because the earth is round.

"If you have a three-dimensional geography, you can go from one point to another point turning around in a circle.

"Essentially, what they're claiming, they could claim no matter where the memorial was."

Mr. Rawls points to his mathematical calculations, using latitude and longitude, claiming that his reasoning is sound.

But Mr. Griffith characterizes it differently, saying that Mr. Rawls' arithmetic is correct, but his mathematical analysis is not.

Regarding the claim that there are 44 glass blocks in the memorial, Mr. Murdoch vehemently disagreed, saying that, first of all, there is no glass block used in the design.

Instead, there are 40 inscribed marble panels listing the names of the passengers and crew at the gateway to the Sacred Ground, where their remains still rest.

There is then an opening in the wall, Mr. Murdoch said, and three additional panels, which would include the date, Sept. 11, 2001.

"Where the other one is being fabricated, I don't know," he said.

A separate glass plate will be located near the visitor's center and include the memorial project's preamble.

As for the allegation that the Tower of Voices is really an Islamic sundial, Ms. Hanley said with an analysis like Mr. Rawls' then the Washington Monument could be perceived as one, as well.

Further, she added, it is still unclear exactly where on the landscape the memorial will even be situated. It could move as much as 200 yards, she said, discounting the idea that it faces Mecca.

"The only thing that orients the memorial is the crash site," she said.

Mr. Murdoch reinforced that idea.

"It's oriented toward the Sacred Ground," he said. "It just couldn't be clearer."

The symbolism of the memorial, he continued, is representative of the geography of the crash site, an idea that predates Islam or any other major religion.

"It's a form that's grown out of the land," he said. "A public embrace of the land."

Mr. Murdoch spoke with Mr. Burnett more than a year ago on the matter, and he said, he thought that by the end of the conversation, his fears had been allayed.

"I don't know what's changed his opinion," he said.

But referring to Mr. Rawls, he said, "We basically have a fanatic who has continued to undercut and violate the families and is exploiting their feelings on his own behalf."

Ms. Hanley said she wants to be respectful to the Burnett family and his next of kin, but she continued, the design, including all 40 names, was approved by the families and the Department of the Interior, and that is the design that will be built.

In speaking for the Families of Flight 93 Inc., Patrick White, whose cousin, Louis Nacke, died in the crash, said he, too, respects Mr. Burnett but believes he's been led astray by Mr. Rawls.

"If he believes that he is in any way serving the families or the American people, I fail to see how that is in any way other than to waste our time and consume our resources."


Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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