Who Needs Tower? N.Y. Politicians Do-But It’s a Folly

Remind me again how “the terrorists win” if we don’t build the real-estate folly that calls itself “Freedom Tower”? Oh, right: If we build it, Osama bin Laden will be sobbing in his cave over the slap in the face the tower will represent. Of course: He’ll be deeply upset that we’ve given every terrorist in the world a new prime target for the next century or so.

And I’ll bet Al Qaeda will just throw up their hands in abject frustration at the new “security measures,” like setting the 1,776-foot tower a few yards further back from the street. No way they’ll be able to deal with that!

Not that they’d be interested: Those who wage asymmetrical warfare don’t care about symbolic targets, do they? Oh, right, I guess they do. Sure, there are many symbolic targets in the city (and each of them will be made all the more vulnerable by the resources that will have to be devoted to Target Zero). But “Freedom Tower,” with its vainglorious but mall-like name, will be the symbol di tutti symbols, won’t it?

Actually, don’t look at it from the point of view of Osama bin Laden and asymmetrical warfare; look at it from the point of view of the office workers and service workers who will have to earn a living there. Someone like my late father, an office worker who spent most of his working life trapped in a boring job in the Empire State Building. (I think he was there that day when a plane accidentally crashed into the upper floors of the tower.)

Let’s assume, against all the evidence, that “Freedom Tower” gets some tenants. No one so far, but it could happen. I’d suggest that Donald Trump step forward first; he was so eager to show his defiant courage on the matter. (Mr. Trump told the Post that he wants to build an exact replica of the Twin Towers, except at least one story higher-take that, Osama!) He should volunteer to move his residence, his family and his entire organization (“apprentices” and all) into “Freedom Tower,” or one of the Twin Tower clones he wants to replace it with.

But if not Mr. Trump, let’s assume there are other C.E.O.’s deluded enough to sign up for the space and somehow get insured. It’s a big assumption: Even corporations who were thinking of building across the street from the site-like Goldman Sachs, which had announced it was building a headquarters there-look like they’re abandoning ship. With that example, who exactly is going to want to move in? We all know the only tenant that leaseholder Larry Silverstein has found for his other office building on the site is Larry Silverstein.

But as I said, let’s say there are C.E.O.’s foolish enough to want to move in, and insurers foolish enough to insure them. Those C.E.O.’s would have done so by choice, but most of their employees would have no choice. In order to keep their jobs, in order to continue supporting their families, they’d have to follow their boss’ dictates and have a target painted on their back every day they reported to work.

Ask yourself: Would you be happy if someone in your family was working in “Freedom Tower”? Especially after the revelation that the more than $4.5 billion of security devices purchased after 9/11 will have to be replaced because (as The Times reported on May 8) they are frequently unreliable.

Office workers, service people, first responders-all forced to put their lives on the line in Terrorist Target No. 1 for the sake of the politicians and real-estate developers who seek to bring glory to themselves (at a safe distance) and are trying to convince us that remembering the victims of 9/11 is all about building unnecessary office space.

I’ve heard people say it’s “for the families.” But the planned memorial on the site is for the families-building that should be the priority. I can’t imagine the families of the 9/11 victims would want to put other families in unnecessary jeopardy as a way of memorializing their loss.

Indeed, two relatives of 9/11 victims wrote a “guest commentary” for the Daily News in which they said: “If we have learned anything from the horrific experiences of those trapped in the burning towers on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, it is that the safety and security of any future inhabitants of the site are paramount and must not be sacrificed for the sake of expediency.”

I’m not alone in thinking “Freedom Tower” is a mistake (not the memorial to the 9/11 victims, just the 1,776-foot-high office tower with the mall-like name). Nor is this a late development in my own thinking. Back before the first anniversary of 9/11 (in The Observer’s Aug. 12, 2002, issue), I argued that we should leave the hole in the ground as a reminder of the horror and not try to cover it up with some glitzy spire that represents not defiance, but hubris and denial.

After all, there’s going to be a memorial. (Why hasn’t that gotten under way already? That should be the priority. This unconscionable delay-according to The Times, it won’t open till 2009!-is the real scandal.) And the current design for the site will preserve the “footprints” of the towers. But why is unwanted office space a victory over terrorism? Does calling “Freedom Tower” “iconic” really make it an icon?

And if an “icon” is what is wanted, wouldn’t the beautiful “Towers of Light” do just as well without putting the lives of thousands of workers with no choice on the line?

And what if they went ahead and addressed the newly revealed (but long-known) “security concerns” and the building went up? And what if, God forbid, sometime in the next half-century, say, some of the terrorists all over the world who are seeking to earn their special place in history manage to take out “Freedom Tower,” despite all our excellent security devices? Do we build another “Freedom Tower” to take its place, and build it twice as high? Just keep setting up targets (and sacrificing office workers) like in a marksmanship range?

But I guess the people who insist that they can address “security concerns” by moving the building back from the street are the same ones who accepted without question the value of the $4.6 billion in post-9/11 security devices that don’t work.

We should be grateful for the recent eruption over ignored “security concerns.” Because the real debate should not be about “security concerns,” but whether to build the building at all. This may be the last chance to stop the folly of “Freedom Tower.” Not to redesign it, but to abandon this misguided project itself.

The problem is that the imagined exigencies of real-estate development (and a mistaken belief that a glut of unwanted office space will somehow aid the economic development of lower Manhattan) have been confused and conjoined with a legitimate desire to build a memorial to the victims.

The office building shouldn’t be the memorial; the memorial should be the memorial. As Michael Goodwin put it in the Daily News on May 8, the focus shouldn’t be on building a memorial for a building, but on building a memorial for the dead. That memorial should have been built by yesterday.

Even The Times, in a careful, measured way, seems to be tiptoeing away from “Freedom Tower.” An editorial on Sunday, April 24, subtly distanced itself from the project even while ostensibly urging it to go forward. For one thing, the editorial pointedly called it “Gov. George Pataki’s Freedom Tower.” And it characterized supporters of the tower as “those who want a perpetual sign of defiance to terrorists,” which carried a hint of disdain for that view.

And then, on May 7, in its second editorial on the security question in two weeks, while again ostensibly supporting the completion of the project, The Times raised what I hope will be the unanswerable question about the building: How do you make it safe without making it look like a vertical armored vault? The Mayor and the Governor, The Times said, “must assure the public that the building will be as safe as humanly possible-without turning it into a high-rise bunker.”

By posing the problem in this way, they raise the implicit question of whether there is any solution that accomplishes both aims. It suggests a choice may have to be made, a compromise: In order to prevent it from looking like a “high-rise bunker,” we might have to make it an undetermined degree less safe than “humanly possible.” The suggestion that there might be difficulty in reconciling “safe as humanly possible” with no armored “bunker” is an important one. Would The Times want to move its employees into a building that is to some degree less safe than “humanly possible”?

The ambiguity in the Times editorial’s language points out the problem. How are the real-estate developers going to sell the office space: NOT LIKE AN ARMED BUNKER AT ALL! SOMEWHAT LESS SAFE THAN HUMANLY POSSIBLE! GREAT RIVER VU!

One could read The Times’ successive editorials, in a Kremlinological way, as saying that there may be no way the building can be “as safe as humanly possible” without “turning it into a high-rise bunker.” It may turn out to be an impossible task and thus, ultimately, not worth attempting.

Couple this with the flaws in the economic argument that “Freedom Tower” will be a “magnet” for the redevelopment and economic health of downtown. How much of a “magnet” will it be for medium-size enterprises if Goldman Sachs looks like it’s fleeing because of safety issues?

The terrorists don’t win if we don’t build “Freedom Tower.” The terrorists win if they make us act foolishly and vaingloriously. Looking back on it, it begins to seem that all the politicians and developers became so absorbed in glamorous “design competitions” and their proximity to “genius” architects and the Medici buzz it gave them that they utterly lost touch with what it would mean for a lower-middle-class office worker whose C.E.O. decided to move into “Freedom Tower.”

Did they really think that Osama bin Laden would look at the plans for “Freedom Tower” and say, “Oh, my-they’ve really, really rebuked me by building another tower. It’s like my 9/11 attacks never happened.”

But they did happen, didn’t they? Does the fact that they happened once mean it can never happen again in the coming century? It’s almost as if we were sleepwalking toward a fait accompli-until the Police Department blew the whistle. Blew the whistle enough times to get the attention of torpid politicians. I love the way the Post reported on May 9 that “a source with first-hand knowledge of the situation,” a source who purportedly knows what George Pataki thinks, told them the following:

“There’s no question the governor is angry at the Police Department. He believes that police officials have put excessive emphasis on security for the Freedom Tower, so much so they are scaring away potential renters like Goldman, Sachs … and making it all the more difficult to get the job done …. This whole ‘security story’ has to stop.”

Bad, bad Police Department! The important thing is to stop the “security story,” not solve the security problem.

Curiously, the very same day, New York magazine’s Intelligencer came out with “a source close to Governor Pataki” saying that “the Freedom Tower has been dead for some time” because of insoluble security problems.

What source to believe? We’ve heard of politicians talking out of both sides of their mouth, but leaking out of both sides of their mouth?

According to the Post, the paper’s Pataki source “singled out for criticism Deputy Police Commissioner for Counterterrorism Michael Sheehan, who wrote letters to the Port Authority outlining the NYPD’s security concerns.

“We get the sense that Sheehan doesn’t want any tower built at the site.” Good for Sheehan! If he turns out to be the whistleblower who spared us this dangerous folly, they should name a street after him.

But you have to wonder: What were they all thinking?

Is it possible that the ineptness of the vainglorious politicians and architects responsible were all part of a super-subtle Master Plan? Terrorists all over the world are eagerly awaiting the completion of “Freedom Tower,” husbanding their resources, holding their fire for the Big Knockdown. By seeming to work on it, then scrapping it and drawing up new plans and scrapping them, we keep the terrorists in a holding pattern! And if we never build it at all, all the while “redrawing the plans,” we’ve neutralized them for years.

Too bad: It’s probably not likely we’d have politicians that smart, is it? We have politicians who believe the problem is the “security story,” not the security problem.

Stop the “Freedom Tower.” Relight the Towers of Light. Build the real memorial now.