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Artists defend controversial Arizona 9/11 memorial

They’ve been called anti-war and anti-American, in both the local and national media.

They’ve read that their memorial to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, coddles the terrorists and insults victims and soldiers.

They’ve heard one politician vow to tear it down. And this year, they heard a state legislator, backed by nearly all his colleagues in the Capitol, push a plan that would either dismantle the work or cover it up.

Yet the three artists who created Moving Memories, the official state memorial to 9/11, defend their work. They say maybe they could have done more to explain how sunlight illuminating phrases onto concrete portrays what it was like to be in Arizona during the attacks and their aftermath.

There’s been a lot of talk about the memorial, but, they say, little actual discussion of it.

“(The controversy) robbed people of the ability to come here with an open mind and experience the gentleness of the memorial,” said Eddie Jones, 58, one of its designers.

And, Jones said, this monument to attacks spurred by intolerant thought in the Middle East has become a symbol of just that here in Arizona.

The artists – Jones, along with husband and wife Matthew and Maria Salenger – took on a tough task: to create a piece of art about Arizona’s response to 9/11 that would be provocative enough to stir discussion, yet benign enough to sit in the Capitol Mall.

The 54 inscriptions – which included the anti-war sentiment, “You don’t win battles of terrorism with more battles,” and the historical event, “Terrorist organization leader addresses American people” – were meant to express the wide-ranging and complex emotions felt by Arizonans in the aftermath of the attacks. Instead, some of those words provoked simple rage.

Maria Salenger, 36, however, believes it is a rage that’s based on misperceptions and preconceptions: People are told to hate the memorial, so they do.

Her brother, who joined the Army after the terrorist attacks, came to see it after completing one of his tours of duty in Iraq. He understood the memorial and praised it, she said.

“It doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” Maria said, “just because some people don’t support it.”

Doomed to controversy?
Most art is open to interpretation, but the statement made by the state’s 9/11 memorial is created with unambiguous phrases. And that, according to a Valley arts official, is at the root of the controversy.

“If the words . . . had more poetic content that was open to interpretation,” the memorial might have escaped furor, said Valerie Vadala Homer, the longtime director of Scottsdale’s public-art program. “But the words are pretty stark and plain. They’re very simple.”

The simple phrases came from the artists’ research, which was more akin to creating a term paper than a sculpture.

The trio headed to the offices of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, where they leafed through three 4-inch-thick binders of documents. An Arizona State University history professor had collected news clippings about the attacks and the state’s relief efforts and had conducted interviews of state 9/11 Commission members.

“We sat and looked at the stories and were amazed,” said Matthew Salenger, 36.

There was a story of a 12-year-old Goodyear girl who sold T-shirts to raise money; a story about Phoenix firefighters getting the first flight available to New York to help search for survivors; and a story of a Phoenix counselor who went to New York and counseled children who had lost parents.

“And we said, ‘This is the heart of the memorial. This is what it should be about,’ ” Matthew said.

Unveiling and reaction
Their circular design, with the phrases made legible through projected sunlight, won approval from the state 9/11 Commission, a body created by then-Gov. Jane Hull in 2003. Members included firefighters, police, a minister and four people who lost family members in the attacks.

The design won over some who initially were skeptical, said Billy Shields, who was part of the Phoenix Fire Department’s search-and-rescue efforts at Ground Zero.

“Being a firefighter,” Shields said, “we were kind of drawn to the more traditional: fire helmets and badges. But you wanted it to be a memorial for everybody, not just police officers and firefighters.”

The trio started with a pool of about 300 phrases. The state 9/11 Commission, in painstaking meetings, voted on which ones to keep and which ones to ditch. Members argued passionately, finally narrowing the field to a manageable 54.

Some of the phrases under consideration, including, “Must bomb back” and “You don’t win battles of terrorism with more battles,” were printed in The Republic months before the dedication.

On the day of the dedication, Sept. 11, 2006, after all the speeches, blessings and applause, a man wearing a turban approached Maria. He was the brother of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Mesa convenience-store clerk killed in a hate crime a few days after the attacks. The man wept and hugged Maria and thanked her for acknowledging the death of his brother on the memorial.

But the acclaim would stop days later.

The blog Espresso Pundit, written by former state lawmaker Greg Patterson, blasted the memorial, saying some phrases on it scored “cheap political points” for the left.

The controversy was picked up by state media, then national media.

Len Munsil, the 2006 Republican candidate for Arizona governor, vowed to tear down the memorial if elected.

Jones said Munsil’s pledge was “cancerous” and “poisonous.”

“(The memorial) never stood a chance after that,” he said.

Proposed remedies
After the election, the commission voted to add explanatory panels at the entrance of the memorial, giving visitors guidance on how to experience it, as well as adding new phrases, including, “Let’s roll” and “God bless America.”

The commission also voted to remove two of the more controversial phrases – one about an “erroneous airstrike” in Afghanistan and another about the terror leader addressing Americans.

The Salengers and Jones started working with the commission on how best to make modifications to the memorial. It was fenced off in mid-February, and Shields expected the changes to be done by June.

But a competing plan surfaced in January. Rep. John Kavanagh, a Republican from Fountain Hills, introduced a bill that would have all phrases on the panels removed, with only a timeline of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, remaining. The proposed bill said that if modifications were not made by Sept. 10, 2008, the memorial would be covered up until the panels were replaced.

Of 90 state lawmakers, 83 signed on as co-sponsors of House Bill 2700.

Kavanagh has since amended his bill. He has moved the deadline for altering the memorial to 2009. He has also ditched the timeline idea, instead proposing the removal of about a dozen phrases from the steel canopy.

“I’ve reached out way beyond the middle,” Kavanagh said. “But these offensive ones really had to go.”

But, Matthew said, all the inscriptions are integral to the design.

“They’re not disconnect-able,” he said.

The Salengers and Jones said they won’t be involved in any effort to strip away phrases beyond the two the 9/11 Commission voted to remove.

Walking around the memorial during a recent visit, Jones waved his hand between the steel canopy and the concrete bench, seeming to try to grab the words the sunlight projected downward.

“I was quite surprised,” Jones said, “that something as sincere as this would be seen as negative.”

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