By Dennis Kneale
It’s about time, dammit!
Thirteen years after Islamic terrorists took down the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and killed 2,753 people who were inside them, the first tenants are moving into the new 102-story Freedom Tower, built on the same site.
So herewith a few thoughts on what that really means, from someone who spent 16 years working in the shadow of the World Trade Center. It is, of course, a sign of closure and healing and all that, but also it is a victory for capitalism, and a testament to our own courage to come back.
Rebuilding, right there where so much crisis and tragedy went down, is something I yearned for from the first moments in the aftermath of 9/11. It was key to our reclaiming our strength: It would show the terrorists that no matter what they do to us, we will rebuild. We will come back. We will not falter, we will not give in to fear.
That is why I love the new Freedom Tower: It’s like one giant, upstretched middle finger aimed at the sky. Fuck you, terrorists, you think we’re afraid? The comedian Chris Rock marveled at this in his over-the-line monologue on “Saturday Night Live,” asking, “What kind of arrogant, Floyd Mayweather crap is this?” Link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gYZLKqGhSZs
Just a couple of days after the towers collapsed, I was a guest anchor on the old CNNfn biz-news channel, and I asked Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg on-air: Shouldn’t we build it again? His answer at the time disappointed. No one would be willing to rent space in a new tower, Bloomberg argued. My response was something to the effect that, well, cut the rents half-price and subsidize them, if need be, and that, because the mayor-elect was new to politics, he didn’t yet appreciate the value of symbolism.
That same week, in a story meeting at Forbes magazine where I was the managing editor, I crusaded for a coverline on the same theme. I wanted a far-off shot of smoldering Lower Manhattan, with a huge headline emblazoned over the entire thing:
“Build It Again.”
My boss went for a Talking Heads alternative: “Life During Wartime.”
The attack on the Twin Towers also was an assault on capitalism itself. It was a strike at world trade and the forces of modern commerce that have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of stark poverty in the developing world. Radical Islam thrives where poverty is worst; it gives some form of hope to people who have none. Capitalism is a rival force that arguably has done a far better job of lifting up the poor; thus, it had to be taken down, too, in the attack on America.
Working at The Wall Street Journal when it was based just across the street from WTC, I felt the floor of my office buckle with the explosion in the first terror attack on the towers in 1993. When two commercial airliners were piloted into the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, I watched the buildings burn from my rooftop in Brooklyn Heights and thought they’d never go down.
Later that day, I went out to stock up on canned goods and bottled water, in case other terrorists somehow might poison the water supply. Suddenly everything looked different, even the falafel cart on Atlantic Avenue, where men in Muslim garb and I eyed each other with a new wariness and said a tentative hello. The brownstone mosque on State Street, which I barely had noticed before, suddenly stood out like a new intruder.
And I still can’t forget the scene from the Brooklyn Heights promenade at dusk that day, as hundreds of us stood and stared in stunned silence at the empty sky that the towers had always filled, and endless smoke stained one of the most famous views in the world.
See, that’s the thing that hurt the worst: Being forced to feel that kind of fear and sadness, forced to look at the world in an entirely different—and more worrisome—way. That change is indelible: In the latest turn in the ISIS crisis, my 76-year-old mother has become a doomsday prepper, and I await her shipment of a six-month supply of shelf-stable, dehydrated food that can last 25 years. Just in case some briefcase nuke detonates at JFK. Enough for me and my daughter. It troubles me that such a silly, paranoid measure is so plausible.
Erecting a replacement tower always had an extra hold on me, as a way of taking something back. I always hated that big, ugly scar of a construction pit that marred the World Trade Center site for the better part of a decade afterward. But now, at long last, life is bustling and business is booming in the blocks that surround the old World Trade Center site. And as the first 175 employees of Conde Nast’s 3,400-person staff start to inhabit the first open floors of Freedom Tower, another piece of our comeback comes into place.
The tower is the tallest in the western hemisphere, a fitting 1,776 feet high, built for $3.6 billion dollars over the past 12 years. On the 102nd story is an observation deck that doesn’t open till the spring. On “Saturday Night Live,” Chris Rock rather tastelessly said Freedom Tower might as well be known as “Never Going In There Tower, cuz I’m never goin’ in there. There is no circumstance that will ever get me in that building. Are you kidding me?”
Funny stuff. The comedian is playing on that subconscious, gnawing feeling of fear that still resides inside us after 9/11, especially for those of us who were closer to the carnage that was … and who might be closer to the carnage that could occur again. But courage isn’t a lack of fear — it’s the ability to overcome your fear. (Note to Chris Rock: Man up!) So I look forward to the elevator ride up to that 102nd-story deck for a look at the great view. I will feel no fear, only triumph. And I’ll try to resist the temptation to hold up a middle finger for any terrorists who would dare think of coming our way. The Freedom Tower can do that for us itself.
A similar version of this article ran at Ozy.com, here http://www.ozy.com/pov/to-the-top-of-the-world-again/36962