Who knew that the image (AP/Copyright 2001, The Record / Thomas E. Franklin) we all know so well of three New York firefighters raising the American flag at Ground Zero on September 11, 2001 is too “American”?

According to the creative director of the 9/11 Memorial Museum, it is and he nearly excluded it from the museum’s collection.

AP / Copyright 2001, The Record / Thomas E. Franklin
Officially called Firemen Raising the Flag at Ground Zero, this Tom Franklin image became a symbol of the resilient spirit of Americans. It was the iconic photograph that captured the strength of America to shine through the hardship of war.

The photo first appeared on front page of The Record and on the Associated Press on September 12 but went viral appearing on the covers of several newspapers around the world. It’s reminiscent of the Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal during World War II.

Now, in “Battle for Ground Zero,” a new book penned by the museum’s director Elizabeth Greenspan, we’re learning that Michael Shulan, the museum’s creative director, and other staffers considered it too kitschy and “rah-rah America.”

Here’s what Shulan had to say:

“I really believe that the way America will look best, the way we can really do best, is to not be Americans so vigilantly and so vehemently.

My concern, as it always was, is that we not reduce [9/11] down to something that was too simple, and in its simplicity would actually distort the complexity of the event, the meaning of the event.”

For those of us who didn’t study art, perhaps we miss the nuance of this argument. From my reading of the comments by Shulan and reports from the museum director, this is less about simplifying the complexity of 9/11. The motivation seems to be a rejection of anything that paints America in too positive a light. Seeing the image evokes certain emotions in Americans as they remember the thousands of lives ripped away by the sinister motives of terrorists who hate this country and everything she represents like freedom, liberty and hope.

Unfortunately, there are too many people like Shulan who hold a strain of this anti-American sentiment and denigrate images like this as mere propaganda.

What makes our country unique is that we have the choice to be independent thinkers and hold beliefs that are divergent from the mainstream. Shulman has every right to feel the way he does about the image as a citizen.

The issue is that as the creative director and his staff decided to exclude this image all together. The notoriety and popularity of this image should not disqualify it from the museum nor should the emotions it evokes. Would the producers of a Civil War documentary leave out images (photos or renderings) from battle scenes because either the Union Jack or Confederate flags were visible?

The mission of the Memorial Museum is to “bear solemn witness to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993.” Further it “attests to the triumph of human dignity over human depravity and affirms an unwavering commitment to the fundamental value of human life.” No image better captures that unwavering commitment than the Firemen photo. It’s appalling that it was nearly the victim of a biased editing process and furthermore that this came from the creative director. If they didn’t want to blow it up onto a 20-foot wall, that’s fine. But excluding it makes me question Shulman’s judgment and the museum’s judgment for hiring him.

A compromise was eventually struck to include the image along with two others capturing the same moment from different perspectives. However, we’re left to wonder what else was excluded from the museum’s collection.