Misplaced Blame for 9/11 Memorial Delays

In an interview on 9/11/08, NPR's All Things Considered host Robert Siegel spoke with Paul Goldberger about the status of development at Ground Zero. Goldberger is the architecture critic at The New Yorker magazine, and has written a book about the difficulties in rebuilding at the site.

Siegel began the piece with an introduction where he asked, "For all the scenes of cranes at work, it is still a giant, lifeless crater, a work in progress. Why? Why, after seven years, in the heart of the biggest business district, in the busiest city in America, why has so little gone up at a site that sadly still looks the part of a place called Ground Zero?"

This is a good question. Most Americans, if asked, would likely attribute the delays to government bungling, and Goldberger's answer was largely in line with this. At least the facts he presented were, but he somehow came to a different conclusion based upon those facts.

Goldberger started off by stating that then-governor George Pataki wanted to rebuild as quickly as possible, so he left all the parties in place who'd had a role in the site before. This, of course, means the Port Authority, who owns the site (yes, the government owns it), and the current private leaseholder, Larry Silverstein. Pataki then created another entity called the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which is a government organization run jointly by the state and city of New York; its purpose was to distribute the $10B of federal funding to redevelop the site. By 2006, things had gone so poorly that both Pataki and Eliot Spitzer wanted to dissolve the LMDC. Spitzer derided it "as an emblem of government waste call[ing] it an 'absolute failure.'"

Spitzer was trying to get elected governor, so this was likely just electioneering. Once elected, he kept the LMDC and put his own people on its board. However, he was not wrong in his initial pronouncements. A rational assessment of the situation would go further and show that the government should not be involved at all, and that "public ownership" of the property is both an oxymoron and an immoral violation of individual rights.

Goldberger ignores this, takes government involvement as a given, and then mistakenly directs blame on "too many people with too many different interests." He goes on, "it was turned into largely a commercial project... and they added a memorial to it," the undeniable implication being that the memorial -- apparently the most important aspect of the rebuilding -- was an afterthought, and crass commercial interests took over.

In the interview, Siegel then asked whether progress had been limited by a conflict of what should be on the site; memorial and non-commercial versus commercial.

Goldberger replied that, yes, this had slowed things down. His tone communicated his unhappiness with the fact that the plan was to restore the original (capitalist) functions of the site and tack on a memorial and "some cultural facilities." He stated that the slowdowns came from conflicts over what should have more prominence, what form they should take, where funding would be found, etc., "and then, the timetable of the commercial world since a lot of the project, unfortunately, is commercial." (bold added)

One wonders if he actually ever saw the Twin Towers, or knew what went on inside them every day. Their existence and the profound wealth-creating work that they housed were living symbols of the greatness of our Republic, and the productive capacity of a free capitalist nation.

But Goldberg is more concerned with the non-commercial, cultural side of the rebuilding. He wrote about it in a New Yorker piece on the 5th anniversary of 9/11. In discussing "cultural buildings" that were eventually scrapped from the plan, he blames victims' families:
Their nemesis hasn’t been cost or security but the ability of a highly vocal group of victims’ families to force political decisions. The group objected to the fact that the cultural component of Ground Zero was to include the Drawing Center, a respected arts institution {respected by whom?} that had occasionally shown works that some felt were less than patriotic, and the International Freedom Center, a new venture that planned to tell the story of struggles for liberty in other cultures and other periods, an idea that some objected would dilute the message of the Ground Zero memorial. They urged the Governor to send the Freedom Center and the Drawing Center packing... {bold and emphasis added}
By Goldberg's account, the victims' families were in the wrong to object to the inclusion of the Drawing Center, or the cultural relativism implicit in the mission of the Freedom Center. He goes on to criticize Pataki for agreeing, calling it an irony that he would censor anything on a "site intended as a monument to freedom."

The problem with his argument -- in addition to the fact that it doesn't even fit the meaning of the word "censor" -- is that he is missing a key point. 9/11 was an attack on America, and as the victims' families rightly demonstrated, the memorial should be a monument to American freedom, not a multicultural bonanza celebrating ideas antithetical to our founding ideas. One of America's greatest assets is that those awful ideas are fully free to be expressed here, but I don't blame the families for deciding that they weren't appropriate at Ground Zero.

Continuing with the interview, Siegel then compared the slow progress at Ground Zero with, of all things, the "enormous numbers of structures" erected by the Chinese government since 2001 for the 2008 Olympics, apparently with the point that the act of building shouldn't take that long. Goldberger replied that he was in Beijing too, and that it made him think that "democracy isn't always such a good thing for architecture." Then he laughed, caught himself, and tried to explain, as if he knew he had revealed too much.
It’s a good thing in general, and of course, we don’t want to lose it or trade it, {oh, of course!} but one of the prices we pay is that big projects take a long time. They create a huge amount of dissent in terms of public dialogue and so forth. In China, there was no discussion. It was simply ordained. And this is what would be, and it was. {bold added}
So there we have it. In essence, both men admire and yearn for the type of brutal, deadly steamrolling possible in a totalitarian society. The leftist who wants the state to employ force in the name of "the good" inherently assumes that the state would pursue the same good as he sees it. Presumably, if the federal government could take over Ground Zero completely, Goldberger's precious cultural buildings would push out the "commercialism" altogether. He bemoans the influence of business, evading the fact that the entire operation is controlled by various government entities, and thus the blame for delays lay solely at the government's feet.

Rather than celebrating the fact that the World Trade Center was, and should be again, a thriving center of capitalism and productive energy, and that this would be the greatest monument and memorial possible, Goldberger wishes that we could be more like China. Rather than identifying government involvement as the problem, getting rid of the Port Authority and "public ownership", and then seeing what the real "timetable of the commercial world" is when private property rights are upheld, Goldberger wishes for the absolute power of the government to simply ordain a solution, bulldozing all buildings, objections, and individual rights that stand in its way.

Goldberger and Siegel unintentionally provide us with a clear picture of the conflict, and it's not the one they think it is.

On one side stands the founding principles of our Republic, chief among them the individual rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of our own happiness, the political system of capitalism that springs from those rights, and the blinding and unlimited wealth and progress that it all makes possible.

On the other side stands the admirers of the all-powerful State, those who long for the use of government force to crush all opposition and impose their own jaded view of the "public good" whether we like it or not.

Which side do you think is best equipped to build a proper memorial for the victims of the 9/11 attack and a monument to American greatness?


Stephen Bourque said...

Good post!

It's interesting to see what slips out of the mouths of some people; they give themselves away. I am simply amazed at the hostility toward commerce that is rampant today, at least in some circles.

C. August said...

Thanks! I was surprised at how openly the two men were admiring of China's brute force, and disparaging of "commercialism". If you get a chance, listen to the NPR streaming audio. It's only 5 minutes long, and it's quite an eye opener.

One thing I didn't mention in the post was that I find it strange that they kept using the term "commercial" instead of just commerce, or even capitalism. I think it was a subconscious way of insulting it by trivializing it... "commercial" sounds so superficial, silly, out-moded by the modern pragmatic view that everyone who is anyone has these days. "Oh, that's so commercial! What a crass throwback to a bygone era!"

I hadn't planned on writing anything about 9/11, thinking that many others (like you) had said everything that needed to be said. But when I heard that interview, after swearing at the radio for a minute, I decided I had something to say after all.

I don't get surprised at the anti-American stories on NPR anymore, but this one, on the anniversary of the attacks, was just too much.

Stephen Bourque said...

One of the maddening aspects of the cultural misunderstanding of what freedom consists of is that our enemies understand liberty better than the average American does.

Observe: a bunch of fanatic, murderous rogues from the Middle East were able to identify the Twin Towers as a suitable symbolic target for striking the west. They were right. The Towers represented capitalism, profit, prosperity, and living in this world. That is the west.

In the meantime, many or most Americans feel that those values should be apologized for, not defended. That might account for the disdain toward commercialism that you pointed out.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

In 1976 I visited NYC and had a great experience visiting the WTC. It was an exciting and interesting place precisely because it was a commercial center. In going up to the Window on the World, I could feel the optimism and energy that came from the work that was done there. I think the most fitting tribute to those that died "minding their business" in the Ben Franklin sense, is to build an even more bustling commercial center.

Monuments are static. A living tribute would be to continue the work of those who died that day.

C. August said...

Thanks for your story and insights, Elisheva.

I regret that I never toured the WTC. I saw it up close in the mid-90s, but never went in.