VALPARAISO — The Valparaiso Republican Party won an honorable mention Saturday for a float in the Valparaiso Popcorn Festival parade commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
But the imagery used of two damaged and smoking (popcorn-covered) models of the World Trade Center towers that were destroyed during the deadly attacks went too far, according to critics both locally and now internationally.
"Talk about a 9/11 memorial that misses by a mile ... in an incredibly disrespectful display, a parade in Porter County, Indiana featured models of the Twin Towers with smoke billowing from each," reads a story posted Monday by the online tabloid journalism site TMZ.
The story, which features a photo and short video clip of the float in question making its way down Lincolnway in downtown Valparaiso, goes on to say Valparaiso Republicans took enough heat that it limited comments on its Facebook page.
The story was also picked up by the London-based Daily Mail, which highlighted an area critic saying, "Beyond tasteless, even without the fog machine going."
A post on the page by a local resident that remained up as of early Monday afternoon predicted the float would gain national attention by making a late night entertainment show.
"I don't know what the theme for popcorn fest is this year but pretty disappointed in this float," the post reads. "We don't ever need to forget 9/11. But was it necessary to depict the burning towers — very distasteful."
Porter County Republican Party Chairman Mike Simpson said Monday the float was not intended to be disrespectful or political. It was intended solely to remember the attacks from 20 years ago and all 2,977 people who lost the lives.
"I think we hit it spot on," he said.
Simpson said the idea of the float was discussed ahead of time with local first responders and service people.
"They all liked it," he said.
An official comment posted online by the local party says, "Our Popcorn Festival float was inspired by the courage and sacrifice of those we lost on September 11, 2001, and recently in Kabul, Afghanistan. We felt it important, considering the parade coincided with the 20th anniversary of that horrible day, and that Indiana welcomed home one the Afghanistan fallen the next day, to dedicate our float not to politics and candidates, but to the innocent civilians, first responders and brave military who perished and whose memories we'll never forget. We wished no disrespect and regret that our tribute to the lives lost and those who continue to serve was to some perceived in bad taste."
The photos on the float of the 13 U.S. service members killed Aug. 26 at the Kabul airport in Afghanistan during U.S. withdrawal of troops under the leadership of Democratic President Joe Biden were not intended as a political statement, but rather as a timely addition to the memory, Simpson said.
"We were trying to honor the tragedies," Simpson said. "If you don't like it, there are others who do."
Another post still appearing early Monday afternoon on the Valparaiso Republicans Facebook page reads, "And the award for tasteless popcorn fest float goes too ... The Republican party of valparaiso!"
"People are entitled to their opinions," Simpson said. "We don't live in a vacuum."
But he felt that some of the critics went too far in flooding with negative online reviews a local business owned by the wife of one party volunteer.
The Valparaiso Democratic Party criticized the float as leaving the general public with a bad impression of the community.
"I am disappointed by the perception of Valparaiso the float has given the world," Chairman Doug Burbank said. "We are a better community than that and by and large we showed that on Saturday when we gathered together to share our town, our organizations, our food and our culture. It is a shame it isn't what the weekend will be remembered for, but it's a reminder that the work of building and improving is never over. We have a year to get ready for the next Popcorn Fest and I know we can give the world something wonderful to talk about."
Burbank encouraged people to remember the victims of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
"There is always a danger, when attempting to honor those lost in tragedy, violence and war, or turning the memorial into a moment for ourselves instead of for those who are no longer here," he said. "The act of memorializing others can quickly turn to honor ourselves. It's important to remember the list of victims on 9/11 aren't just names on a page. They were people who showed up to work or boarded a plane with no expectation they were in their last moments. They left behind family, friends and unfulfilled dreams. The way to honor them is to remember the people behind the day, not the detailed events that took them away from us."
Times Staff Writer Joseph S. Pete contributed to this report.