Eleventh-Hour Plea: Scrub Freedom Tower, A 1,776-Foot Blight

The hour is growing late, politicians and public officials are sleepwalking toward disaster, so forgive me if I take up, once again, my lonely crusade against the tragic folly of the so-called “Freedom Tower.”

I was prompted to return to the question by a moment that dramatized the absurdity of the reassurances we have been given about the project’s super-duper new “security measures”: a report on NY1 News about Governor George Pataki’s “counterterrorism czar,” James Kallstrom. A report which extolled the high-tech gadgetry that would supposedly protect those forced to work in the building that is to “replace” the Twin Towers, the 1,776-foot-tall Freedom Tower that will—if ever built—instantly become World Terrorist Target No. 1.

Ground-breaking for this ill-conceived piece of politicized symbolism (1,776 feet! That will show Osama!) is set for a month from now, and the “reassurances” that Mr. Kallstrom was offering on “security measures” were a stark, almost laughable, demonstration of how shamefully inadequate those measures were. How the giddy politicos and developers and their pampered “genius” architects have thought only of themselves in pushing forward this foolish project—and exhibited utter contempt for the imperiled working people who will be compelled to put their lives on the line for the greater glory of … George Pataki?

Poor James Kallstrom, an honorable man (though some have questioned his certainty, when heading the F.B.I. investigation of the explosion of T.W.A. Flight 800, that nothing more than “mechanical failure” was at fault)—forced to front for this farce. You’ll recall that nearly a year ago, plans for the Freedom Tower had been halted for the first time when someone finally noticed that the extremely brilliant “visionary” designers of the project had simply ignored a New York Police Department warning that their much-lauded design had fatal security flaws that practically invited a truck bombing.

Back then, when I wrote two columns in The Observer (May 16 and June 27, 2005) calling for cancellation of the utterly unnecessary project, we were assured that a system of “bollards” (those stump-like, fire-hydrant-sized, metal and stone-post barriers) and checkpoints would foil the truck bombers. (Additionally, the building would be moved a slight distance further away from a heavily truck-trafficked roadway.)

Yes, bollards and checkpoints and—oh, yes, “fortifying” the lobby … that would do it! Nothing to worry about here. Move along, folks.

Of course, as I and several other columnists (Kurt Andersen and Frank Rich among them) who have questioned the need for the tower have pointed out, the “bollard” mentality was, if not as dumb as a post, not really that reassuring. As Mr. Rich put it, “The 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?”

And then the London backpack bombings dramatized another inadequacy of “bollards” to protect the workers in the building: not aerial attacks, not attacks from truck bombs, but, for want of a better word, walk-ins.

It was this little problem that Mr. Kallstrom seemed to be addressing in an interview with the A.P. that NY1 News was reporting on.

In the interview, Mr. Kallstrom made one important point that should put to rest the arguments made by some letter writers in response to my previous columns: It’s not just another building. Yes, there are other tall buildings, other symbolic targets in New York City that require special security measures—I wasn’t making an argument against building any tall buildings. Please.

But, as Mr. Kallstrom put it—showing a degree of realism the tower’s promoters had previously failed to display—the Freedom Tower was on a different order of magnitude as a security problem because of its extraordinary symbolic value to potential terrorists. All the posturing about the 1,776 feet and the hubristic claim the building would be an “answer” to 9/11 …. You live by symbols, you die by symbols.

And here’s where things got absurd to the point of disbelief: when Mr. Kallstrom began to detail some of the high-tech, purportedly scientific—in fact, sci-fi—“security measures” that he envisioned as necessary to protect the newly redesigned Freedom Tower. It was because of these devices that the Freedom Tower would have “a standard of security that doesn’t yet exist in public spaces around the nation.”

He went on to say that this non-existent level of security might involve “iris scans,” “thumbprint analysis,” “smart cameras” that could do what might be called “facial profiling” when linked up to a database of suspected terrorist faces. Oh, yes—Mr. Kallstrom also assured us there would be lethal-gas sensors and patrols of well-armed security guards who “will not be minimum-wage people.”

All of these security measures ready, every morning, to whisk you worry-free to your lethal-gas-tested Freedom Tower office. Who wouldn’t want to work there? (Do I need to point out that iris scans, thumbprint analysis and facial ID’s are only useful for identifying people who are already in a database of employees or security risks? Absolutely useless when it comes to anyone not on the grid, so to speak.)

Absurd as this vision of freedom at the Freedom Tower is—you are free to have your thumb, face, iris and bodily cavities scanned—the line that stopped me dead was the one about “a standard of security” that doesn’t even exist yet.

Gee, I wonder why it doesn’t exist yet? Perhaps because that level of security is, well, nonexistent, unobtainable. For one thing, not all of the “security measures” Mr. Kallstrom cited have been used or even fully tested yet. Facial profiling, for instance: real science or wishful thinking? Would you stake your life on it? So we’re going ahead and breaking ground to build this building based on the hope that maybe, by the time it’s done—in 2011 or 2525—some sci-fi devices not yet perfected or invented will protect its workers?

Something about that phrase, “a standard of security that doesn’t yet exist,” is not exactly comforting. Because even with your really, really “smart” cameras, there’s the Frank Rich question about aerial attack. In other words, even if you turn the Freedom Tower into a battleship-armored maximum-security prison, it will still be vulnerable to attack by air. And by traffic from the nearby river.

Would you volunteer to line up every morning for iris scans and thumbprint analysis and facial profiling—in addition to airport-like metal detectors, bag checks and random strip searches—to get a chance to be targeted for death in a real-estate developer’s boondoggle? Would you want anyone in your family to do so?

And all for what? As Kurt Andersen put it last year, we are not “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 our providing “a provocation to ambitious terrorists around the world.”

Especially when the politicians and architects won’t be putting their own lives on the line, but those of office workers and service workers and first responders. Especially when the perfect memorial for the building, one that expresses both loss and enlightenment—those “towers of light” that were first beamed into the night sky on the sixth-month anniversary of 9/11—can and should be relit right now.

And remember, the Freedom Tower isn’t the memorial for the victims of 9/11; the (shamefully unbuilt) memorial is the memorial. As Michael Goodwin of the Daily News pointed out last year, our first priority should not be a memorial for a building, which is essentially what the Freedom Tower is.

The failure to even get started on a memorial for the victims (and first responders) is perhaps the most disgraceful breakdown of civic culture imaginable. (For continuing coverage of the stunning ineptness of those in charge, go to the Web site of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, http://www.skyscrapersafety.org.) The failure, the inestimably poor quality of political leadership on this question, is a scar on the landscape nearly five years deep now. And it keeps getting worse.

Everything had to be vast, Ozymandias-sized, iconic, “important” architecturally. Politicians never look more idiotic than when they are led by the nose by fashionable architects and their media sycophants. What an obscene joke these people have made of their task.

It’s time to boot them all out. Which brings me to my modest proposal. It was something I first wrote about a year after 9/11, when I spent time at the site, still raw from the excavation of ruins, and argued that the best thing to do would be to preserve the gaping wound, not try to cover it up, pretty it over, gentrify it, achieve some contrived “architectural solution” to the problem.

There is no architectural solution to tragedy, to history, no architectural solution that could do justice to the truth of the event other than to leave that gaping hole in the ground. Build a simple memorial adjacent to it (and do it now). But don’t race to erase or deny history by showing off architectural ingenuity on the site of a mass murder. Or try to convince us that a real-estate hustle has anything to do with “freedom.”

And don’t try to tell me about all the money targeted specifically for the W.T.C. site. That’s the one thing politicians are good for—shifting funds around. Perhaps that’s the one way they can redeem the disastrous farce they’ve created with the bungling of this whole matter: arrange for the funds to go into lower Manhattan development outside the 9/11 site. If there’s a will, there’s a way for it to be done—if anyone in the political realm has the slightest leadership skills. Oh, wait ….

Early on, there were those who favored cultivation of a simple park to occupy the devastated land. Rudy Giuliani initially opposed using the site for “economic development.”

But I’d go further and say: Cultivate nothing. Relight the “towers of light.” Build a dignified memorial. But leave the wound open, and cultivate contemplation of what that wound meant to those lost in it.

Eleventh-Hour Plea:  Scrub Freedom Tower,  A 1,776-Foot Blight