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Nick Coleman: Protecting Dignity? It’s Really Dodging Responsibility

Author / Coordinator: Nick Coleman
Star Tribune
August 2007

After the Twin Towers were destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001, and as the recovery of the victims stretched from days and weeks into months, New York City built four platforms to allow the public to see the site.

The platforms, each of which could hold up to 400 people, were open for five months, and hundreds of thousands came to pay respects and make a pilgrimage. It was important to let the people get close.

In Minneapolis, where a bridge has collapsed into a river, killing and maiming people and embarrassing the officials on whose watch it happened, we are not allowed to see. It’s easy to figure out why.

When bureaucrats are busy congratulating themselves for how fast they acted and how swell they did their job, there is always something they had rather we not look at. For two weeks now, Minnesotans by the thousands have come down to the river to try to comprehend the magnitude and the meaning of the bridge collapse. They have come to the grassy knoll in Gold Medal Park. They have come to the Stone Arch Bridge and they have come to any and every vantage point that offers a glimpse, however far off, of a disaster that used to be unimaginable: A public project, in ruins, allowed to fall.

Two developments Wednesday showed how hard some officials will work to keep us away from the bridge:

A federal judge refused to let lawyers for some victims have expert bridge inspectors examine the wreckage. And the city shut down a brief attempt to open a bicycle bridge — 1,000 feet from the ruins — to let the people pay respects to the dead.

The stated reason for the reversal was the need to protect the dignity of those who lost their lives (two persons are still missing). But the victims lost more than their dignity when a freeway bridge collapsed, and you may be forgiven if you wonder who is being protected now.

When lawyers for some of the victims went to court Wednesday to ask that outside experts get access to the disaster site, a federal judge named Patrick Schiltz gave them the bum’s rush. The hearing was over in less than an hour when Speedy Schiltz denied the request with a 10-page order. If he let some victims hire experts to examine the wreckage, he said, he would have to let other victims do the same.

Can’t have that. That would smack of fairness. Maybe the question deserved more than a moment’s consideration.

“The victims’ lives will be spent paying the price for someone else’s incompetence and neglect,” says James Schwebel, president of Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben, the law firm barred by Schiltz from having experts visit the bridge. “It’s important to have an objective, outside examination of what caused the bridge failure.”

The state says it will do that. The state also said it would get us across the river.

“These are the same kind of people who don’t want us to see the coffins coming back from Iraq,” Schwebel says. “But reality is good for us. People should go there and see it and feel it and get the goosebumps and say, ‘What the hell went wrong?’ They don’t want the public to fully appreciate the consequences.”

In New York, after 9/11, some worried that visitors to “ground zero” would create a spectacle or show disrespect to the victims, but New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said there were bigger concerns.

Ground zero was a place of horror and bravery. We had to see it, and reflect upon it.

The same is true for a fallen bridge in Minneapolis. Here, a terrible thing happened. People died, and people braved the dangers to help rescue and recover the victims.

We have to see it. And decide what it means.

“You can’t completely control human conduct, and you can’t stop doing the things that are good things to do because some people will abuse it,” Giuliani said as the 9/11 viewing platforms were opening. “To deny people access to the site would be like denying people access to other sites of historic significance, like Gettysburg or Normandy. I’m sure there are people that go to all those places for the wrong reasons, but most go for the right reasons.”

Let’s take a tip from Rudy Giuliani. Let the people see.

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