Downtown divided over hosting 9/11 terror trials


By Julie Shapiro

Already-tight security measures will only get tighter when five accused 9/11 terrorists go on trial in Lower Manhattan.

The federal government announced last week that the likely death penalty trial would take place in Downtown’s federal court, just blocks from the World Trade Center site. The Police Dept. has not finalized security plans, but press reports predict more street closures for the neighborhood and a much bigger law enforcement presence.

Many local residents and workers said the trials would be an unwelcome intrusion upon a community that has not yet recovered from 9/11, and the terrorists should be brought to justice elsewhere.

“It’s just sheer lunacy,” said Danny Chen, who lives in Chatham Green. “The elected officials seem to have forgotten that we haven’t yet resolved the issue of just normal day-to-day after 9/11, and now they’re throwing this at us…. It’s hubris, it’s bravado, and it doesn’t serve any practical purpose.”

Chen is a member of the Civic Center Residents Coalition, a group that was named to remind people that the Civic Center does in fact have residents, not just courts and offices. Chen cited the post-9/11 Park Row closure, which put much of his apartment complex behind security barriers, as just one example of how the neighborhood is still “under lockdown.”

The actual impact of the trials on daily life in Lower Manhattan remains to be seen. The trials will take place in the federal courthouse at 500 Pearl St., which is named for former U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The defendants, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, whom prosecutors say masterminded the attack, will likely be held in the high-security Metropolitan Correctional Center nearby. The streets around the M.C.C. which is across from police headquarters, are now closed to general traffic but open to pedestrians, while some of the streets adjacent to the nearby courthouse, including Worth St., are currently open to both cars and pedestrians.

The New York Post reported this week that the city would shut down additional streets around the courthouse, bring in additional U.S. Marshals and National Guardsmen and post snipers on rooftops.

Paul J. Browne, the N.Y.P.D.’s top spokesperson, said in an e-mail to Downtown Express that contrary to the Post story, “No plans for the trial have been detailed yet.” Browne denied the Post report that some subway entrances would close during the trial.

And Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, a Lower Manhattan resident, told NY1 Monday that he did not expect the trial to have a large impact on businesses or the community because Downtown already has so much security.

Still, the blocks around 500 Pearl St. will likely be subject to additional security measures. And while those measures may make the area safe, they could also make it unlivable, said John Fratta, chairperson of Community Board 1’s Seaport/Civic Center Committee.

“That’s totally unacceptable,” Fratta said of the decision to locate the trial Downtown. “That’s making us live in a war zone.”

C.B. 1 Chairperson Julie Menin has invited the N.Y.P.D. to public and private meetings to discuss their plans.

“We want to meet right away and get a sense of what this means for the neighborhood,” Menin said.

Menin, who supports holding the trial in New York and hopes to attend it, said she has heard from residents on both sides of the issue. In an essay for The Huffington Post, she argued that it is important for Mohammed and the other accused terrorists to receive a fair and open trial in the city, rather than go before a military tribunal, which would be less likely to convict them and would not shed light on the interrogation methods used, including waterboarding.

Not everyone agrees.

“I’d hang ’em right away,” said Larry Torto, 53, a Health Dept. worker who was sitting on a bench in Foley Square at lunchtime Monday. “These are war criminals and they should be treated as such. They should not be given the same status as American citizens. They should be tried by a military tribunal.”

A few benches over was Jim O’Donnell, a 64-year-old courts worker who agreed that bringing terrorists into New York is an unnecessary risk.

“I don’t want them near Lower Manhattan ever again,” O’Donnell said. “Just seeing what they did would make their day…. It’s like asking for something to happen.”

Jeanie Chin, a member of the Civic Center Residents Coalition, added that if President Obama and his family lived near the courts, he would never have placed the trial there.

“They’re putting us in the line of fire and they know it and they don’t care,” Chin said. “It’s making us mad as hell.”

However, Fern Howell, 61, a city marriage clerk, said it made sense to try the terrorists at the scene of their crime.

“If Ray Kelly says he’s got it under control, there should be no problem,” Howell said. “I’d sure like to be on the jury — it’d be a nice vacation.”

Since U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the trial plans last Friday, city, state and federal politicians have been weighing in. Mayor Michael Bloomberg voiced his support, but former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Gov. David Paterson both said the trials did not belong in the city, though for different reasons.

Giuliani argued that the appropriate place to try the accused terrorists is in a military tribunal, not civilian court, though in 2006 he had high praise for the civilian trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker.

Separately, Paterson said he was concerned about the impact of the trials on the local community, which suffered on 9/11 and afterward when the federal government said without evidence that the air was safe to breathe. Paterson said returning the terrorists to the site would be an “encumbrance” for New Yorkers.

Paterson was one of the few Democrats to publicly disagree with Obama’s decision. U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who represents Lower Manhattan, called the decision “fitting.” Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Downtowner, also said he supported Obama’s choice, though Judy Rapfogel, his chief of staff, said, “We couldn’t describe it as a good idea.” She said the speaker would work to protect the community from any adverse effects.

State Sen. Daniel Squadron, whose district includes Lower Manhattan, did not object to the venue of the trials but said in a statement that he did not want the proceedings to infringe on anyone’s security or quality of life.

Margaret Chin, a Democrat who will represent Downtown in the City Council starting Jan. 1, said she would prefer the trials were held somewhere else.

“The Lower Manhattan neighborhoods have been so stressed by all the security measures since 9/11 that this will cause more hardship for the residents and the businesses,” Chin said in a statement to Downtown Express.

Other residents and workers also said they were concerned for local businesses, but the manager of Albella Ristorante and Bar on Reade St. said he wasn’t worried.

“We’re hoping it’s going to drum up business,” said the manager, who did not give his name. Albella is used to major events, from the Madoff trial to the Yankees parade. “Usually we don’t suffer any because of that stuff.”