The Statue of Liberty was originally conceived as a Muslim peasant woman and was to have stood at the approach to the Suez Canal, a lantern in her upraised hand serving as both lighthouse and a symbol of progress.
But the sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi of France, proved unable to sell the idea to the khedive of Egypt, Ishma’il Pasha. Bartholdi remained determined to erect a colossus on the scale of the one in ancient Rhodes. He sailed to America with drawings of the Muslim woman transformed to the personification of Liberty.
At first, Bartholdi considered the tip of Manhattan and Central Park as possible sites. He was on a ferry to Staten Island when he decided that Bedloe’s Island would be just the spot.
And there she now stands, the Muslim woman turned to Lady Liberty, the light in her upraised hand symbolizing so much more than simple progress, the inscription at the base words from the poet Emma Lazarus that are familiar to us all:
“Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
From that promise has sprung America’s greatness. And the terrorists would love to see us shut that golden door out of fear.
Word that a fake Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the terrorists in Paris suddenly has more than a dozen governors declaring that they will bar Syrian refugees from their states. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says he would even turn away orphans under the age of 5.
Christie took a very different position two months ago, after the public was shocked by photos showing 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi dead on a Turkish beach, having drowned while he and his family were attempting to escape the horrors of Syria.
“We can’t have that,” Christie the presidential candidate said then of the dead child, also saying, “I’d sit down with our allies and figure out how we can help, because America is a compassionate country."
Too many of us have joined Christie in allowing the photos of the carnage in Paris to make us forget those images of little Aylan.
Never mind that, at the very most, only one of the Paris attackers was a Syrian refugee. The rest are confirmed to have been either French or Belgian.
Never mind that by allowing ourselves to be terrorized we are responding exactly how the terrorists want us to respond.
Never mind that this sort of reaction was the terrorists’ primary purpose in murdering all those innocents.
As always, their ultimate goal is to cause us to respond in ways that make us less than we really are.
In the moments after the planes hit the Twin Towers on 9/11, we responded with what was best in us.
But in our subsequent grief and anger we ended up becoming so unlike ourselves that we engaged in torture.
We lost so much faith in our criminal justice system that we were afraid to haul the mastermind into court like any other murderer.
In another sign of our fear, the Statue of Liberty was closed to visitors for three years. The crown as closed for another eight.
“I hate to bust your bubble, the statue isn’t facing Manhattan,” U.S. Park Ranger Kenya Finley said as visitors were again allowed to ascend to the top in 2009. “It’s facing France, but you can see Brooklyn first.”
That only made sense, as the French largely paid for the statue; not the central government, but some 180 municipalities, including Paris. Private citizens also contributed, among them descendants of French soldiers who fought in our Revolutionary War. French school kids kicked in centimes.
The pedestal was largely financed by Americans. Newspaper owner Joseph Pulitzer pledged to publish the names of all those who donated. They included thousands of school kids who kicked in pennies. A kindergarten class came up with $1.35.
All those school-kid coins came to mind as you stood inside the long closed head and reached up to feel the rippled copper overhead.
“That is the ripple of her hair,” Finley said.
When you peered out the small windows to the left, you could see the Manhattan skyline, most notable not for what was there, but what was not. The Twin Towers were still gone, yet the very fact that you could again peer out Lady Liberty’s crown imparted a sense that America was recovering itself.
At least we had never been so scared that we went against those words in the inscription.
Let’s hope the horror in Paris doesn’t cause us to do so just because some politicians are trying to play on our fears.
When we welcome and aid the tempest-tossed, from Syria or anywhere else, we put to a lie what our enemies say about us.
Yes, we need to be vigilant.
Yes, we have to be ready to strike before we are struck.
And yes, an ISIS agent might slip into the country amongst ISIS’s fleeing victims.
But whatever damage an agent might be able to inflict would be nothing compared to what we would do to ourselves by going against what makes us great.
Anyway, the latest jihadi in the U.S. known to be taking direct instructions from ISIS was a 20-year-old raised on Staten Island, an American citizen the same way all except possibly one of the Paris attackers were French or Belgian citizens.
On Monday, a collection of decent souls went to the September 11 Memorial and assembled around the Survivor Tree. That is the Callery pear whose charred stump was the last living thing pulled from the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center. The tree had been nursed back to health at a park up in the Bronx and eventually transplanted at the memorial, where it is the first tree on the grounds to bloom in the spring and the last to go bare in autumn.
It was the only one to still have green leaves as people set on shining brass stands a pair of French flags and two American flags that rippled in the breeze. A number of smaller French flags and flowers were placed around the base of the tree. Somebody put down a tiny replica of the Eiffel Tower next to one of the Statue of Liberty.
A few yards away by the South Memorial Pool were inscribed the names of the firefighters and cops who had perished in the 9/11 attacks while showing us that the way to beat terrorists is to refuse to be terrorized.
And to look at the miniature statue next to a tiny Eiffel Tower at the foot of the Survivor Tree was to know this:
To truly be Lady Liberty, the figure built with kids’ coins and originally conceived as a Muslim must remain a Muslim as well as a Christian and a Jew and a Hindu and a Buddhist and every other faith, even no faith at all.
And those words in the inscription must apply to everyone, most particularly youngsters who are in a plight such as Aylan’s, but are not yet beyond saving, who might still reach the golden door.