Why Ground Zero Still Matters to America
Nearly a decade after the 9/11 attacks, Ground Zero in New York City remains both an open wound in the American psyche and a forge of renewed national purpose. Controversy over the inclusion of a “mega-mosque” and Islamic community center has drawn this singularly tragic tourist destination into sharper focus in recent days. But in profound ways, we have never stopped paying attention.
Today, American men and women fight on distant battlefields against a resilient enemy motivated by that same ideology that spawned those horrific scenes that for the briefest of moments, brought the USA to its knees. The latest front-line recruits were only children on the verge of adolescence when it all went down. Hateful dead-enders who consider Osama bin Ladin a prophet and hero will continue to take inspiration from 9/11 for decades to come, leaving murder, destruction and endless war in their wake.
In the Shadow of The Towers
I walked in the skeletal shadows of unfinished towers last year, astonished to see this place still indistinguishable from any other large construction site. Construction cranes, workers in hard-hats and pervasive dust still litter the scene today. The awful slowness of the operation has prevented healing. Indeed, this open wound in America’s city has left a far deeper psychic scar. Americans understand the need to take the fight to the enemy; but they wonder how it can all end.
“We live in a dangerous world and have to have a foreign policy that combats terror,” said former New York City Councilor Alan Gerson, whose district included Ground Zero. “But whether the war as it is being carried out is still a war on terror at this point, there’s a lot of debate and differences of opinion. Most people are not advocating that we pick up and leave. They see that Afghanistan was a base for bin Ladin. But as to the ongoing linkage and how we conduct our efforts there, Obama will need to make the case not just to New Yorkers but to all Americans that its strategy can work.”
Americans are increasingly ambiguous about the war. As tens of thousands of reinforcements poured into Afghanistan this year, civilians and soldiers alike wondered whether it would be enough to overcome an insurgency that drew strength from international neglect and the distraction of the Iraq war.
Even some US soldiers who have fought in Afghanistan and are eager to continue serving the mission seem unclear on the connection to the WTC attacks. An unrelenting menu of conspiracy theories has created the kind of cognitive disconnect and distrust of democracy that would not be hard to find on the streets of Tehran. “When 9/11 first happened, I knew so many people who lost members of their families,” said infantry specialist David Scarpelli, 22, who grew up on Long Island. “It stirred up anger in me. Who could do something so monstrous? But I can’t tell you exactly what happened. There are so many theories.”
Will Americans continue to see the war as a fight that not only can be won, but must be won? Not only for the raging and mournful ghosts of the victims, but for the freedom of those who live and breathe in freedom: there is no alternative to victory.
Ground Zero is more than site of an opening shot in a global conflict. Many Americans see it as potentially the starting point of an American renewal.
“It was terrible in those days and weeks after the evil struck, but the surrounding neighborhood around the WTC has had a renaissance of businesses digging in, old residents staying and new residents coming in,” Gerson says. “New Yorkers have more than demonstrated our resiliency. No one would have thought that the surrounding area would ever come back as it did.”
And yet, there is still much to be done. Particularly for locals, the delay in rebuilding the site is demoralizing. Certainly, the global recession slowed down the process. But the fact is that the rebuilding was happening at a glacial pace even before the economy tanked.
“Architecture by committee doesn’t work,” complained 13-year Battery Park resident and architect Michael Kaufman. He attended dozens of public consultations on the project and submitted many recommendations to stakeholders, with only a few form letters and heartache to show for his effort. He feels the public process has not only been a waste of time, but that the poor management of the project shows disrespect to longtime residents.
Kaufman recalls dodging falling debris 100 yards from the towers at the beginning of the first attacks. He takes pride in being part of the residential community that began moving back into the neighborhood four months after 9/11. Like many New Yorkers, Kaufman sees the site as hallowed ground. “But you can’t get to the hallowed part… They’ve taken that away from me and now it’s pissing me off.”
No one can deny America’s great respect for religious freedom. Relentless cries of “Islamophobia” from naïve protesters and duplicitous jihadists are immediately disproved by the simple fact that the USA remains a prime destination for Muslim immigrants.
While Jews are barred from entering Saudi Arabia and Christians are threatened with death by Muslims on the streets of Bethlehem and Cairo, America continues to take in thousands upon thousands of followers of the Islamic faith.
Proponents of the building of the Cordoba mosque at the WTC site who suggest that their opponents disdain freedom of religion are rightly ignored. There is nothing to prevent a mosque from being built in an area that is already home to a flourishing Muslim community anywhere else in the five boroughs.
Other proponents talk of the symbolic value of the mosque, aiming to show off America’s respect for diversity and tolerance.
Yet there is no precedent for this. There is no giant Shinto shrine at Pearl Harbor. There is no monument to Stalin and the Gulag Archipelago in Washington, D.C. This is celebration of diversity to the point of submission.
Mosque advocates ask how one can object to a mosque named for Cordoba, a land where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in relative peace and harmony at a time when the rest of Europe was wracked by internecine warfare? Again, the symbolism is twisted by historical revisionism. Cordoba was a frontier outpost of the expansionist and militaristic Islamic caliphate. It was conquered by force and ultimately fell from within, corrupted by xenophobic and intolerant fanatics virtually unrecognizable from today’s Taliban.
Americans cannot afford to be so generous or naïve. “The fact remains that in the minds of many who are swayed by the most radical interpretations of Islam, the Cordoba House will not be seen as a center for peace and reconciliation,” says Dan Senor, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and resident of lower Manhattan. “It will rather be celebrated as a Muslim monument erected on the site of a great Muslim "military" victory—a milestone on the path to the further spread of Islam throughout the world.
The future of America will rise from the ashes of Ground Zero.
Interminable delays over the past decade have poured salt on the ruptured psyche of the nation. And a changing macroeconomic picture will undoubtedly change the fundamental nature of the structures that will replace the original WTC buildings.
Adding millions of square feet of high-end commercial real estate to a city still reeling from the downturn runs the risk of creating a massive capitalist Potemkin village; an unanticipated symbol of the hollowness of the American dream. That must not happen.
But after an excruciating waiting period, gleaming towers and green public spaces will blot out the sandy tones of this dual-use burial ground and construction site. A broken political process and bureaucratic bumbling can not forever stand against the American habit, as immodest as it may seem to outsiders: to get things done.
The day will come when the site will be a viable and organic neighborhood integrated again into the pipes and wires and sidewalks of the rest of Manhattan. New Yorkers will go there again to work in offices with views that make their fellow citizens look like ants. They will stare out at the gleaming windows of the skyscrapers and lose themselves in shouting matches over traffic jams and baseball games.
And someone like Michael Kaufman will finally repair that sense of loss that cuts his sentences short at awkward moments while crossing the bridge to the waterfront; though that pain would never leave him entirely. He wouldn’t want that.
There’s something awfully comforting, terribly heart-warming, intrinsically American about that.
Jonathon Narvey is the Editor of The Propagandist