Monday, December 28, 2009

Tragedy Made Tasteless

Thirteen Signs Remind You

Ramp Is Named for Victim.

99.9 % Don't Know of Him

Or What Happened There.

By Henry J. Stern
December 28, 2009

Sam Roberts has written an interesting feature story, which appears on pA23 in today's Times. It is about the Ari Halberstam Memorial Ramp, which is an elevated stretch of highway, twelve hundred feet long, leading from the FDR Drive to the eastbound lanes of the Brooklyn Bridge. You should link to the article here. It is absorbing, well written and quite thorough. The topic deserves the attention the Times gave it because it reminds us of an Arab terrorist act in New York City seven years before 9/11.

The ramp was named by the City Council in 1995 in honor of Halberstam, a 16-year-old Yeshiva student who was one of a group of 15 who visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe in a Manhattan hospital. On March 1, 1994, while on the ramp leading to the eastbound lanes of the bridge, the vehicle was sprayed by bullets fired by a young Arab in another car. Halberstam was shot in the head and killed; three others were wounded.

It is not unusual to choose the scene of a murder or a fatal fire to honor the victim. One or two signs may be placed there, and the location also retains its original name.

This was different. There are no fewer than thirteen signs bearing the name of Ari Halberstam on or around the ramp. This is both unprecedented and unnecessary. A traffic sign is primarily intended to direct traffic. A road may be named for a person (Henry Hudson Parkway, Van Wyck Expressway, both Moses' ideas), but that road is either a route or a destination itself. We know of no other traffic ramps that have been named for victims, although one may exist.

In this case, the symbolic nature of the murder adds to its importance. It is evocative of Emmett Till, the African-American teen from Chicago who was beaten, shot and drowned in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman in a grocery store in the town of Money, Mississippi. Till became a symbol of black victims of race-based violence. Halberstam deserves to be remembered as a victim of a similar hate-crime, a Matthew Shepard for Orthodox Jews.

What has happened is that people are afraid to offend the victim's mother, who is a very intense and passionate person. She is, reasonably, obsessed with the sad death of her son and devoted to his memory. We believe that he deserves to be remembered, in great part because of the tragic nature of his death. Like Daniel Pearl, Ari was killed because he was Jewish. But he never had the chance to excel in a profession, or to marry and start a family, as Daniel Pearl did

But thirteen road signs, all the same, are excessive to the point of absurdity. Traffic signs are intended to direct and inform drivers. Every sign which does neither is a distraction. Nowhere else in the city have we found oversignage such as this. The excess mocks the person it intends to honor, but Ari is not responsible for the poor taste the repetition displays. The signs are as insistent as the old Burma-Shave poles along highways, except that the messages are identical.

The political problem is that there is a special interest group involved here centered about one person -- the victims mother. Many people, in and out of government, privately believe the signage is absurd, uninformative, distracting and redundant. But no one wants to bell the cat, by becoming involved in a controversy with an aggrieved mother, in which they may appear to be on the wrong side of history.

When I was Parks Commissioner, I saw the clutch of signs frequently on the way to City Hall or to Brooklyn. Parks at the time shared responsibility with the Department of Transportation for signage on parkways, which Robert Moses had laid through many of the parks he had previously built. This elevated highway was not a parkway, so we had no direct jurisdiction. I took the matter up personally with David Teitelbaum, Mayor Giulianis liaison for Jewish affairs. Teitelbaum told me that he agreed with me, but the mayor had told him he wanted all the signs to be displayed, and that settled the matter. I do not know whether what Teitelbaum told me was true or not, but I dared not try to find out directly. There were too many Parks issues where the mayor was helpful to us for me to risk his good will by raising an issue that might discomfort him. The matter was beyond my agency's jurisdiction in any event. Then came Bloomberg, and the signs have remained.

It would be a shame if young Ari Halberstam, an unintentional martyr, should be remembered more for a plethora of signs bearing his otherwise unknown name than for the story of his short life and awful death. His story should be told in a permanent public memorial in a place where people can visit, read his story and reflect on the tragedy brought on by his killer's irrational hatred of Jews. This is a project in which Mrs. Halberstam could be constructively involved. It fits with her work for the Jewish Children's Museum in Brooklyn.

BTW, Ari Halberstam was not the first victim of Arab terrorism in the United States. That tragic distinction goes to Robert F. Kennedy, murdered by Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles on June 4, 1968, the night he won the California Democratic primary. Sirhan, who was 24 years old when he assassinated the American senator, said at the time. "I can explain it. I did it for my country." He said he killed Kennedy "with twenty years of malice aforesought."

Sirhan is now in a California state prison in Pleasant Valley, a minimum/medium security facility, having served 41 years of his life sentence. He applies periodically for parole, which has always been denied. If he were released, he would probably return to the Arab world and be treated as a hero, like the Lockerbie bomber who killed 290 civilians on a Pan Am flight in 1988.

There is another connection. Halberstam was honored with a ramp, Robert Kennedy with three bridges, for seventy-three years called Triborough, because they join three boroughs of New York City. We think that Robert Kennedy was a great and growing leader who might have made an exceptional President of the United States. There is an entirely separate issue with sending the descriptive name Triborough into the dustbin of history. That discussion of that issue will await another occasion.

P.S. In preparing this story, we made frequent calls to a number of Department of Transportation officials to find out just how long the Halberstam ramp is. Not one of them knew where it was, much less how long it is.

P.P.S. This may be hard to believe, but at the last call we made, we were told that the length of the ramp could not be revealed for security reasons, and we should make a FOIL (freedom of information law) request to their attorneys if we wanted further information. This is one reason why people hold government in varying levels of contempt

P.P.P.S. After giving up on DOT as a source of information, we found the length of the ramp in Sam Roberts' story, published in today's Times. The length actually depends on where you start and stop counting.

We certify that all the P.S.'s really happened, this afternoon.

StarQuest #632 12.28.2009 1236wds

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