A return to reason five years later at Trade Center

By David Stanke

For four years, we had been too frail to hear or speak unfiltered truths, but the light of reason is finally breaking through. Over the last year, we have seen the agendas forwarded in the name of 9/11 openly challenged and debated.

The emotional shockwave from the 9/11 disaster consumed our capacity to squarely face unpleasant realities. We searched desperately for heroes and shrouded ourselves in blind patriotism. Words and symbols became more important than actions and results. The current state of the World Trade Center reflects the results when action is left to the winds of passion.

In the rebuilding dialogue, at meeting after meeting, family members came with pictures of their loved ones to proclaim their status as the ultimate victims of 9/11. The pictures were like I.D. badges, the credentials of victimization. No one responded to mourning family members, regardless of what they said. The pictures, originally spontaneous signs of desperate loss, became the hardened tips of weapons designed to silence opposition.

Dogmas of 9/11 went unchallenged until the costs of resulting policies became intolerable. Mayor Bloomberg brought reality back to the W.T.C. memorial when he declared that $1 billion was too expensive. The lack of progress on the site prompted discussions on how the process had gone wrong and pushed open issues toward closure.

In our neighborhood, real-world challenges denied us the luxury of indulging in rhetoric. By the time our broader society became aware of the rhetoric, we had long since finished shaking our heads and moved on.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, politicians overrode the Environmental Protection Agency experts and gave the city the all-clear. Many people came back more quickly to establish homes, businesses and, most important, the Stock Exchange. Meanwhile, in the pit, the air was said to be poison and everyone was told to wear masks. But use of air masks, never enforced, was in effect a matter of personal choice.

At the time, it was convenient to toss the masks aside to get the job done. Rudy Giuliani normally walked the site with his mask on, until the cameras turned on. The masks, critical for safety, were not good for public image. Calling workers heroes didn’t protect them from toxic carcinogens. Only recently is the cost in lives being exposed. A compassionate mayor may have attended funerals, but a heroic mayor would have protected the living.

In our condo building adjacent to the W.T.C., our contractors quickly adapted the rhetoric of saving the building. The person we paid quite well to oversee work on the building had no problem telling everyone how he was saving 114 Liberty St. The city’s Office of Emergency Management gave him access to the site that residents of the building could not get. He even adopted the W.T.C. tragic/heroic saunter. He would always show up to take visiting media stars on tours of our building, but he frequently missed meetings with me, the condo board president. He would leave a day early and come back a day late. His lies and broken commitments left us in utter confusion. To the people he took on tours of our building, he was a hero, an unpaid volunteer. In the end, he was a huge obstacle and his firing came far too late.

Today, more often than not, W.T.C. claims are challenged. When a victim’s family member recently demanded that more profits from the movie “World Trade Center” go to the memorial, an editorial defended the right of artists to make money creating 9/11 subject matter. Giuliani’s free ticket through the 9/11 Commission hearings is lamented by members of the commission. People who claim that the deceased are in the toxic dust on Staten Island are told that the cost of moving the material is too high. Lawsuits by the Coalition of 9/11 Families against the Port Authority are evaluated in our courts, and dismissed.

Is the W.T.C. rebuilding moving forward finally because rhetoric is being dismissed? Or has the start of construction finally exposed the rhetoric for what it is? Five years after 9/11, I see the site differently yet again. The W.T.C. today isn’t just a historic place of a national tragedy, it is a compelling reminder of how problems fester if they are not addressed honestly and openly.

But if the deals in place at the W.T.C. hold together and work continues, people will realize that what they need is not located in those 16 acres, in the memorial or in the twisted steel and broken concrete of the ruins. We will be able to focus on the real problems of life caused by the loss of 3,000 family members and friends, by an enemy of our nation that will not go away and by a city that was destroyed and is trying to fight its way back.

David Stanke lives and writes Downtown. His e-mail is davestanke@ebond.com.