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Tragedy and Its Vendors

In a fit of overzealousness, the New York Post goes after street vendors and promotes ground zero as a sacred space.

11:01 PM, Jan 10, 2002 • By DAVID SKINNER
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ON WEDNESDAY the New York Post got religion. The one-word coverline shouted "Outrage." Below, the front page said, "How street vendors dishonor our heroes at ground zero." The accompanying photo seemed unintentionally lighthearted. It showed a smiling, chubby Asian woman standing behind a fold-out table full of merchandise bearing the trademarked logos of the NYPD and the FDNY. Thus did the New York Post set out to afflict the afflicted by coming down on some street vendors like a ton of bricks.

Veteran columnist Steve Dunleavy quoted the gospel according to St. Matthew and said that "Hucksters within sight of the viewing platform are offering for sale baseball caps, wool hats, scarves, and other items carrying the logo of the heroic FDNY and NYPD for small change. For 4 or 5 bucks apiece, you can pick up one of these unauthorized, essentially counterfeit, items."

"Counterfeit" is going a bit far. According to the New York Police Foundation, a charitable organization that licenses the NYPD logo, New York City registered the police acronym only last year. The application process was begun before September 11. Though it may seem strange that a revenue-earning logo should be made from the name of a public organization, Pam Delaney, a spokesperson for the foundation, says the trademark is being enforced. "Cease and desist letters have been sent to those not obeying the licensing laws." Well, property is property, and there's no reason the city and its chosen representatives shouldn't protect lawful trademarks.

But overstatement isn't the only problem with the Post's investigation. Dunleavy compares a downtown sidewalk to a house of God. Another article quotes survivors of World Trade Center victims saying "it is outrageous and disgusting" that "unlicensed vendors" should be "making a profit off my grief." Massive numbers of rubberneckers are traveling downtown to look at this hole in the ground, but the real sacrilege is across the street where some vendor is hawking an NYPD baseball cap? Where's the sense of perspective here? All these poor vendors are guilty of is bad taste and trademark infringement.

Pace Dunleavy, ground zero is neither a den of thieves nor hallowed ground. If anything, it is what it is: a hole in the ground and one of the weirdest tourist attractions ever. So much so that the city is now distributing tickets to force some rational scheme on the men, women, and children waiting in the cold for hours to have a moment on the viewing platform.

The New York Post and others seem to be laboring under the unilluminating idea that a dividing line can be set up. On one side, there's all the grubbiness of life and the city, while on the other there is the purest sadness and heroism. But such lines can't be physically set down and preserved, nor should they be. It is in word and deed that we honor best, in ceremony and history, in politics and testimonials. The country has made only a down payment on the years of remembrance and analysis and description and recovery that lie ahead. Beating up on street vendors with the grief mallet doesn't accomplish anything.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.