First, the good. The Stony Brook chapter of Young Americans for Freedom placed 2,977 miniature American flags along the academic mall in commemoration of the nine year anniversary of September 11. It serves as a simple yet moving memorial and offers an opportunity for reflection about what it means to be an American post 9/11.

Were it left at that, the students who spent a part of Wednesday afternoon placing the flags down should be commended.

But it wasn’t left at that. Let your eyes wander when looking at the memorial and you’ll come upon a sign that reads “9/11 Never Forget Project” with a website leading back to the far-right Young America’s Foundation. Or another that offers up the meeting time and location for the Stony Brook YAF. What could have been a moving tribute to the fallen victims instead became the latest ploy by the conservative fringe to hijack 9/11 for their own political gain.

This year in particular, whether its because of contentious midterm elections or a conservative uprising that has made it “ok” for tea baggers and their ilk to openly hate Muslims (see: Park51 center, Quran burning, Tennessee arson case), the politicization of 9/11 is especially noticeable.

On the far end of the spectrum is the Rev. Terry Jones, a Florida pastor who planned to stage “Burn a Quran Day” today. Whether the event happens or not is still up in the air, after military personnel from Gen. David Petraeus to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates urged the pastor to reconsider. And while even the most bilious conservatives thought the event itself went one step too far, the underlying message–that Muslims are all America-hating terrorists–remains to this hour unchallenged by a considerable percentage of conservative leaders, in some cases even echoed.

On the anniversary, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are staging an event in Anchorage, where Alaskans can join the First Couple of the tea party in memorializing 9/11 victims by buying alcohol and forking over $75 to cover the two’s speaking fees. There’s “no better way to commemorate 9/11 than to gather with patriots who will ‘never forget’,” said Palin via Facebook. Actually, I can’t think of a worse way.

The sign that YAF includes in every pre-packaged memorial sent to college campuses.

And around the country, conservative groups on college campuses are taking orders from YAF, posting a horrendously offensive lawn sign in the middle of what should be a politics-free memorial for 3,000 murdered Americans. It’s hard to even envision the whole as a memorial at all, when its creators seem intent instead to use it as a billboard.

What’s especially appalling about YAF’s pre-packaged gimmick is the fact that dozens of the flags on display represent Muslim Americans, many of whom rushed into burning buildings to save thousands of lives. And yet here lies their memories, used unknowingly to shill for an organization that stands diametrically opposed to the religious beliefs and American freedoms of their brothers and sisters, daughters and sons, fathers and mothers. Could anything be more reprehensible?

Of course, the framers of the 9/11 Never Forget Project will tell you that they are simply trying to memorialize the victims, that politics have nothing to do with it.

“We’re not here to promote any political group, we’re just here to honor those who died in the attacks.” said one of the event organizers.

It’s an argument that’s harder to make when you look at YAF’s own description of the event:

“Young America’s Foundation began this program in 2003 when we discovered that most college campuses were either completely ignoring the anniversary or holding a politically correct event instead.”

There’s no definition provided for what a “politically correct” 9/11 memorial looks like, but I would define one as a memorial free of politics. And that doesn’t sit well with YAF.

If there was any lingering doubt about the political ambitions of the Never Forget project, also mentioned on the list of ways to “properly remember the anniversary of the September 11” is “host a conservative speaker at your school.” So that’s what we’ve been doing wrong these last eight years.

Young America’s Foundation dragged Think Magazine into this fight last week, when we tweeted an article by our partner Campus Progress that explained how YAF was exploiting 9/11 by using what CP’s Katie Andriulli called “9/11 Porn;” that is, the horrific images of planes crashing, people jumping and buildings falling. She was right, and we said as much in 140 characters or less. YAF didn’t respond well to the original CP post, or to our tweet of it (and I suspect they won’t take too kindly to this post either).

But if YAF insists on politicizing one of the greatest tragedies our nation has ever faced, there needs to be accountability, and they need to be called out for their shameful hijacking of 9/11.

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