Ground Zero Hype: Is Giant Skyscraper A Freedom Folly?

Time is running out to stop the “Freedom Tower” folly. The new, improved, super-duper security revisions to the design of the 1,776-foot-tall terrorist-target-practice tower at Ground Zero are due to be unveiled by the end of the month.

On June 7, John Colgan, the highest uniformed counterterrorism official in the NYPD, proclaimed (to a City Council hearing) that the revised tower would be the “safest, largest building in the city.”

It’s not clear how he could pronounce so confidently and complacently on the plans, since they had yet to be finalized when he spoke (according to the planners). But in any case, it indicates a deeply flawed mind-set for a counterterrorism official. As Daily News columnist Neil Steinberg pointed out, “Being safest is an outcome, not a quality that can be claimed ahead of time …. [d]o we really want the guy whose job it is to fight terror to think that way? Wouldn’t it be far more reassuring had he said, ‘This building will be a magnet for every madman … on Earth, and we’re going to have to work like dogs to keep it safe’?”

Meanwhile, at the City Council hearings, more disturbing news emerged about the “Freedom Tower” and the mind-set of the city’s counterterrorism division. For one thing, as The Times put it, “buildings planned for the [Ground Zero] site are not legally required to adhere to the city’s building codes” on matters of safety and security, because they’re under the jurisdiction of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. In other words, a parking garage on Staten Island has more obligation to obey New York City safety codes than the Ground Zero buildings.

And it gets worse: It turns out that the NYPD’s much-promoted new counterterrorism division has virtually no enforcement authority either: “It’s not our place to say yea or nay,” Chief Colgan said, according to The Times. The most he can say is “I don’t think so.”

I don’t think so! The safety of the thousands of hapless souls who may be forced to work in “Freedom Tower” to support their families depends on what the edifice-addled developers think about the counterterrorism chief’s “I don’t think so.”

I don’t think so. It may not be Chief Colgan’s place “to say yea or nay,” but it’s time the politicians of the city show some backbone and stand up and say “nay” to this foolish and dangerous, unwanted and unnecessary project. Any Democrats out there not cowering before the Ground Zero juggernaut? Now is the time to speak up.

Because the new design that Chief Colgan has already hailed is going to be unveiled soon. Expect a triumphant press conference and an unquestioning press blindly applauding the Emperor’s New Tower design without examining the claims being made for it, if the past is precedent. The “security concerns” being addressed mainly involve protection against a truck bomb-including features that will certainly have Al Qaeda tearing up its plans, such as smaller windows below 150 feet. As if a truck bomb was the only threat; as if anyone can guarantee that any World Trade Center replacement is going to be able to be made safe from aerial attack.

I have to say, with some pride, that a number of the city’s columnists have been outspoken and out front on the subject of the Emperor’s New Tower idiocy. There was my column urging that it wasn’t too late to stop the “Freedom Tower” folly and restore the Towers of Light instead (The Observer, May 16, 2005). And then, Kurt Andersen in his New York magazine column called upon the Ground Zero bureaucrats to “[f]orget the idea that we are obliged to build a super tall high rise for symbolic purposes, to defy the terrorists, or ‘repair’ the skyline. The skyline was fabulous before the Twin Towers and Al Qaeda will not be diminished a jot” by offering “a provocation to ambitious terrorists around the world.”

A smart point, reinforced by Frank Rich’s column in the May 29 issue of the Sunday Times. He reminded us that “[t]he simple question that no one could answer the day after 9/11 remains unanswered today: What sane person would want to work in a skyscraper destined to be the most tempting target for aerial assault in the Western world?”

That’s the point: The building will be Terrorist Target No. 1 as long as it exists. To deny that reality is not to let the terrorists win, but to give them a chance to win big. As Mr. Andersen put it: “Will the inspirational jolt we enjoy in 2009 by having demonstrated our architectural gumption, outweigh the horror we will feel if that [edifice] is bombed in 2010?”

Who needs an empty gesture when others may have to pay for it with their lives? (As I put it in my initial column, “[I]t 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.’”)

And then, in the May 30 issue of The New Yorker, Paul Goldberger contended that “[t]he Freedom Tower, with or without its fancy spire, is an unnecessary building” and called for small-scale housing to be built downtown instead. An immensely sensible solution. This is what Manhattan needs-not the “attention-getting architectural symbols” that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has identified as prime terror targets, according to The Times.

So, in addition to me, there’s Kurt Andersen, Frank Rich, Paul Goldberger, perhaps Neil Steinberg-although he may just have been reacting to the alarming naïveté of our top terrorism cop. And by the way, why was John Colgan sent to the City Council to front for the super-duper new “safest, largest” building plan whose final version hadn’t been seen yet? What happened to Michael Sheehan, who as the deputy police commissioner for counterterrorism seems to rank above Chief Colgan in authority? Although, in fact, it seems as if the NYPD’s counterterrorism division doesn’t really have much authority at all. (And two NYPD public-information officers couldn’t seem to tell who really runs the shop-Sheehan or Colgan: very confidence-building.)

Still, you might recall that Deputy Commissioner Sheehan-to his great credit-was the first to raise security concerns with the torpid Port Authority (which owns the Ground Zero site), as far back as the letter he sent in August 2004. A letter that the Ground Zero bureaucrats didn’t bother to address until months later. Was Deputy Commissioner Sheehan silenced for rocking the boat, as might be inferred from a New York Post report that Governor George Pataki believes that “police officials [i.e., Sheehan] have put excessive emphasis on security for the Freedom Tower, so much so, they are scaring away potential renters like Goldman, Sachs”?

You know what’s scaring away potential renters: the “What, me worry?” attitude that the NYPD’s security concerns are a bother (“excessive emphasis”) when compared to the super-elegant architectural and symbolic vision of the planners-which, of course, is far more important.

But no one wants to move into the building, however elegantly designed; there are exactly zero prospective tenants signed up so far.

What was truly shocking about the reaction to the security issue when it finally became public was how blindly the politicians and editorial writers responded, as if the solution were just to “speed up the process,” to get a new design to solve the problem, with no one questioning whether the problem could be solved. (Not all problems can, you know.) Instead, we got a blind, boosterish, “let’s have some action” reaction-action for the sake of action, action being more important than reflection.

If anything should have put the nail in the coffin of this foolish project, it was the June 7 Times report on the new tower’s security problems, which featured a disturbing litany of facts-and an even more disturbing litany of quotes from those supposedly entrusted with the security of the project.

In one of the great deadpan remarks of all time, the two Times reporters, Glenn Collins and David W. Dunlop, tell us that “Freedom Tower is being revised to provide a greater shield from vehicle-borne explosives. This is generally described as ‘the most important consideration’ in anti-terror structural design by the [federal] emergency management agency, even though the last attack on the trade center was an aerial assault” (italics mine).

In other words, the “security redesign” is primarily meant to protect the building and its occupants from the kind of attack that the Trade Center suffered in 1993. Aerial attack? Was there an aerial attack on the World Trade Center? You’d never know it from the discourse on “improved security” from the Ground Zero bureaucrats in the Times piece. Instead we’re told: “Managers of the redevelopment insist that the trade center site can be made safe through a series of protective zones, with checkpoints, bollards and other barriers.”

Yes, that ought to take care of any concerns about aerial attack-especially those checkpoints and bollards, which, as we know, hijacked planes on suicide missions are obliged to observe.

But wait-it gets still worse. It seems that many of the security improvements are designed to insure the survival of the building, as much as the inhabitants. To make sure that “Freedom Tower” is “reusable” after an attack that incinerates a good many of its human inhabitants. I’m not making this up: The “security goal is to make Freedom Tower structurally reusable after an explosion,” The Times tells us. Did you catch that? Why worry about a new 9/11-it sounds like new tenants will be able to move right in after they clear out the dead.

This would be obscenely funny if it weren’t so horrifically stupid and irresponsible.

For pure pathetic humor, though, one must defer to Daniel Libeskind, the architect we were told was so brilliant by all the critics and politicians. Mr. Libeskind delivered this hubristic bloviation to The Times: “We are responding to the need for security, but we are also responding to life. We cannot make the Freedom Tower a tower of fear.”

Yes, concern for aesthetics over security is always a sign that an architect is “responding to life.” Making a building easer to die in is always life-affirming, right? Excuse me while I “respond to life” by gagging.

Isn’t it dreadfully apparent now that the entire project-and the lives of its potential inhabitants-is in the hands of a group of egotists, idiots, political opportunists and incompetents?

Who beside the columnists I’ve mentioned is going to stand up and say stop? Isn’t it time for the editorial boards of the city’s dailies to take a look beyond the bloviation, to what the Times reporters call “a gamble against unknowable, and possibly deadly, odds”? Shouldn’t The Times editorial board be reading the work of its reporters rather than obsessively repeating its own aesthetic concern that the tower not look bad, that it not look like “an armored bunker”? Aren’t there more important things than an elegant look? If you don’t want an armored bunker (which offers little protection from aerial attack anyway), then don’t build it at all.

Isn’t it about time one of our cowering politicians shows some leadership on the issue?

To repeat again the words of two 9/11 victims’ relatives, who wrote this in the Daily News: “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.”

Yet expediency, in the form of Governor Pataki’s imagined political future and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s re-election campaign, is the driving force behind the continuation of this folly.

The discussion should not be about how to save “Freedom Tower,” but rather: Who will save us from “Freedom Tower”?