September 11, 2012; Source: CBS

Eleven years after September 11th, the nonprofit sector is debating a number of issues relating to the meaning of September 11th, some of which raise important questions about the nonprofit sector. One big debate involves the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which cost $700 million to build and is expected to come with an annual operating cost of $60 million, including $12 million a year on security. That cost is higher than many of the nation’s most famous memorials, but still below the $81 million annual operating costs of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has defended the operating costs as a necessity and some congressional Democrats are committed to finding federal funds to help out. The museum isn’t finished because of a longstanding construction cost dispute between the museum foundation and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (which owns the World Trade Center site), though Mayor Bloomberg just announced a deal that should allow construction to proceed on the below-ground museum.

Whether one thinks that spending $700 million for a September 11th memorial was the right thing to do or not—and even survivors’ families are split on the topic—it’s not clear that the museum foundation has a plan to pay for the operating costs, and a plan for a $20 million annual federal subsidy has stalled. New York’s two senators, Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer, are pushing for the federal money, but Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is dead set against it.

While the debate swirls around the museum, other September 11th issues also concern nonprofits, charity, and philanthropy in the U.S. One such issue is the health impact of the terrorist attacks. The World Trade Center Health Program reports that 20,000 Ground Zero workers are being treated and another 40,000 are being monitored for illnesses caused by the carcinogens, asbestos, and dust that enveloped the site after the buildings collapsed. Estimates are that at least 1,000 Ground Zero workers have died from respiratory illnesses. Reuters Health quotes the spouse of a policeman who lost his life at the World Trade Center who says, “They are sick and dying and their marriages are breaking up…Why are we pouring all this money into buildings when men don’t have enough insurance to buy breathing apparatus?”

Around the nation, groups are doing volunteer activities in commemoration of the September 11th attacks, but what strikes us as most important are the volunteer activities that heal the societal—and religious—breaches that widened in the aftermath, breeches evident in the continuing jingoism that permeates American politics. American Muslims are volunteering all around the nation, not for Muslim activities, but for programs benefitting entire communities. An example is the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA Memorial Blood Drive in Oshkosh, Wisc., part of the “Muslims for Life” campaign that hopes to recruit 11,000 people giving blood at mosques and facilities around the nation in honor of the victims of September 11th.

“I think over the last 10 years, September 11 has focused a lot on the mourning and remembering,” Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, told the Orlando Sentinel. “I think it’s time that we should give the community something positive to do, especially with how polarized and divided our country is.” At the same time, there is little debate that there should be some sort of physical commemoration to the worst attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor. How do you think the September 11th tragedy should be honored, and what should be the role of the nonprofit sector?—Rick Cohen