Ground Zero as an emblem of America’s dysfunction

ground zero

The opinion writers at the WSJ are, predictably, fulminating over the upcoming trials of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed et alia in NYC. Whatever you think about that, one of them made an excellent point about our nation’s fecklessness with a photograph and a sharp couple of paragraphs:

The third way to consider the trials is to look at Ground Zero itself. After eight years of deliberation, planning, money and effort, what have we got? The picture nearby is the answer.

Let me be more precise. After eight years in which the views and interests of, inter alia, the Port Authority, NYPD, MTA and EPA, the several governors of New York and New Jersey, lease-holder Larry Silverstein, various star architects, the insurance companies, contractors, unions and lawyers, the families of the bereaved, their self-appointed spokespersons, the residents of lower Manhattan and, yes, even the fish of the Hudson river have all been duly consulted and considered, this is what we’ve got: a site of mourning turned into a symbol of defiance turned into a metaphor of American incompetence — of things not going forward. It is, in short, the story of our decade.

By failing to quickly decide what to do at that site and then DO it, our nation has shown its weakness — the flaws that come inevitably with being a liberal democracy riven with partisan and cultural conflicts, a society that values everyone having their say more than going ahead and getting things done.

Some of these things about our country I would not change; others I would. The thing is, a liberal democracy CAN get its act together. This was a pretty great country back in 1941-45, and yet we managed to pull ourselves together after Pearl Harbor and build and operate a towering war machine that quickly eclipsed the ones that Germany and Japan had been building for two decades. Those militaristic and fascistic countries underestimated us then, thinking we were too soft and divided in our purposes to defeat nations as focused as they were.

Today, fanatics who are willing to die for their cause think we are too soft, comfort-loving, life-loving, indecisive and ineffectual to defeat them. Failing to rebuild and move on at Ground Zero — allowing their act of terror to leave us in a state of paralysis at that site for eight years — speaks volumes about our dysfunction, and makes them look right. I mean, what do you say about a country that goes into paroxysms over something as obvious as the need for health care reform — or the need to rebuild at Ground Zero?

It’s not that we don’t know how to design something and build it. We’re great at that. We just can’t decide what to build, and that is just one among many effects of the fact that, as a nation, we still haven’t been able to get together on HOW we want to respond to 9/11.

Is a nation that divided and confused capable of continuing (is it capable, for instance, of summoning the energy to overcome our economic crisis so that I can get a job, just to bring it down to the personal level)? Or are we all washed up? Or is the answer somewhere in between, and if so, precisely where?

34 thoughts on “Ground Zero as an emblem of America’s dysfunction

  1. bud

    Huh? They’re building like crazy. This stuff takes time. Tower 7 has been built and is now occupied. The 9-11 memorial is progressing nicely. Towers 1 and 4 are also moving along and should be finished in a year or so.

    We rushed into the debacle in Iraq based on lies and jingoistic, patriotic fervor. The result is hundreds of thousands of needless deaths. I see nothing wrong with taking our time and doing things right.

  2. Brad Warthen

    And would you have thought that, eight years after the attacks, that site would look like that from the air?

    We generally think of things moving a little faster than that in New York.

  3. Karen McLeod

    While I agree that by now we should be building on that site (or doing whatever we’re planning on doing with it–can we put the fish in charge?), there’s a big difference between building,or building back, an edifice that will probably remain in use for at least 100 years, and building a war machine. A war machine is designed to do one thing: wage war against a given enemy. This construction is (probably) supposed to be both a memorial and the restoration of a busy commercial site. Deciding what kind of memorial it should be, and what kind of building would be most useful for what kind of commerce is much more complicated, and requires much more planning. Let’s not put ourselves down; these are very different projects. If we must fuss at ourselves let’s fuss because we’re not waging the war effectively. One would think than we’d learned in the revolutionary war that sending a standard army up against a guerilla (sp?) force didn’t work very well, and that inflicting damage upon a country’s population did not win the hearts and minds of those in that country. We can think creatively and effectively, and its about time we did so.

  4. Brad Warthen

    And Karen, I think maybe the fish ARE in charge.

    The thing is, putting the country on a footing to win a worldwide war is thousands of times as complicated as building a memorial/commercial site. Far more variables, far more challenges to overcome, far more complex decisions to be made.

  5. Kathryn Fenner

    I’m not so sure how “obvious” it is that something needs to be built there and what it needs to be. Millions of people die every year in violent deaths, yet because some terrorists got smart enough to hit NYC and the chattering classes, we make a huge deal over it. I just drove past the site of the plane crash the killed everybody but the celebrities on the DJ/FM crash, and if you didn’t know where it was….there are teddy bears at Gervais and Harden. The march on the Statehouse in memory of the victims of domestic violence…
    The New Yorker had a piece about how tricky it was to get the writing of the victims names in the reflecting walls right.

    I think you have some false pattern recognition going as well. The same people aren’t involved in both projects, the reasons aren’t the same for delays, and so on. It might be more accurate, yet not accurate at all, to say the reasons we don’t have health care reform or victory in Afghanistan are the same–at least the only same governments are in charge…

  6. bud

    The single photo you provided is misleading and may even be old. Here’s a website that chronicles the history of reconstruction efforts.

    As you can see there has been enormous progress since September 2008. WTC 1 is rising rapidly after the long and difficult foundation work was concluded. It is anticipated this will open in 2013 to join WTC 7. WTC 4 is also rising well above street level. WTC 2 and 3 are not progressing at this point and may not be built. But that mostly has to do with lack of demand for office space owing to the recession.

    But what is most impressive is the progress on the memorial. This was a complex project and rightfully deserved careful consideration from many parties especially the families of the victims. And it appears they are getting it right.

    Sadly there are far too many folks in the media who want to rush things along and look at everything in a negative light. That does a great diservice to the many folks who correctly viewed this project as a sacred event that required due care and deliberation to get it right. Impatience has proven the death knell for many promising projects in this country and it is a proud moment for America when something as important as the ground zero reconstruction can be accomplished without bowing to the naysayers and negative thinkers. This is going to be a grand and glorious accomplishment once completed.

    Thankfully the journalist hacks at the Wall Street Journal didn’t get a vote. That bunch of incompetent bumpkins was not part of the decision process. Thank God for that.

  7. bud

    One last thing. Rather than a sign of weakness the WTC development shows our strength. We do consider everyone’s input. Weakness is when we allow a few people to bully folks into accepting something that has not been fully vetted. Just look at what happened when John McCain failed to fully vet his VP choice. Is that something we should be modeling our way of like on?

  8. bud

    For those of you that have great admiration for the military let’s compare a complex military project, the F-22 Raptor, to the ground zero development to see how quickly that came to fruition. From Wiki here’s the timeline for the F-22:

    . In 1981 the United States Air Force (USAF) developed a requirement for a new air superiority fighter, the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF), to replace the capability of the F-15 Eagle, primarily the F-15A, B, C and D variants.

    . A request for proposal (RFP) was issued in July 1986, and two contractor teams, Lockheed/Boeing/General Dynamics and Northrop/McDonnell Douglas were selected in October 1986 to undertake a 50-month demonstration/validation phase, culminating in the flight test of two prototypes, the YF-22 and the YF-23, respectively.

    . On 23 April 1991 the USAF ended the design and test flight competition by announcing Lockheed’s YF-22 as the winner. It was anticipated at the time that 650 aircraft would be ordered.

    . The production F-22 model was unveiled on 9 April 1997 at Lockheed Georgia Co., Marietta, Georgia. It first flew on 7 September 1997.

    . The first production F-22 was delivered to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, on 14 January 2003 and “Dedicated Initial Operational Test and Evaluation” commenced on 27 October 2003. By 2004, 51 Raptors had been delivered.

    Conception to first production delivery of the F-22 took an astounding 22 years. Does that show a sign of weakness or do certain projects just take a long time to get right? By comparison much of the ground zero reconstruction will be completed in about half that time.

  9. Doug Ross

    That photo depicts America in a nutshell. It’s all about money. Unions, politicians, and corporate hacks.

    My solution: sell all the property to Mayor Bloomberg and then get out of the way.

  10. Karen McLeod

    But Brad, We know how to build guns, bombs, bombers, destroyers, etc. We know how to recruit and/or draft an army. A war has one desired outcome. If the country determines that that is what it wants to do, then everyone seeks that end. In NY some folks want a memorial (and they feud over the design of that), some want commercial buildings, some want both, some want neither, and the fish (I just polled them) want an underwater garden filled with lots of food and clean water.

  11. Brad Warthen

    OK, Karen hit on the point of this post, when she said “If the country determines that that is what it wants to do…”

    That’s what we haven’t done. With Ground Zero. With the War on Terror. With health care. With economic recovery. With take your pick. If we had, we’d have more to show on all those fronts.

    We have lost the ability to pick a direction, and then work together to move things in that direction.

    That’s my point. It was my point from the start.

  12. Doug Ross

    Here’s another solution. The government can just declare that Ground Zero has been rebuilt with a an awesome memorial and with no tax dollars spent. Have someone come up with a Photoshopped picture that looks amazing. And then just leave the area in its current depressed.

    Just like all the phony “jobs created or saved” the Obama administration has claimed the stimulus has caused. Totally made up numbers. Shameless political hackery.

    Change we can believe in… right.

  13. Kathryn Fenner

    Well, the problem may be that we can’t even decide if we want a representative form of government or everything by referendum. We could just have a dictatorship/oligarchy.

    Columbia has the democracy problem in spades–do we let City Council decide or do we let every Tom, Dick and Harriet weigh in and try to please everyone–which can’t be done, of course. South Carolina, on the other hand, is ruled by the aristo-oligarchy a/k/a the legislature.Things get done that *they* want done, until a federal judge says they can’t do it for constitutional reasons—see “I believe” license plates, Shannon Faulkner, etc. WE think nothing gets done b/c they’re inept, but actually *exactly* what they want done gets done. Impeach Sanford–nope. Ban payday lending–nope. Pass incentives for Boeing–yep. State hospitality beverage-yep. Overhaul tax system–nope.

  14. Maude Lebowski

    I agree with Bud and Burl.

    “We have lost the ability to pick a direction, and then work together to move things in that direction.”

    Have we ever really had that ability? Isn’t that trait more likely in a totalitarian state?

  15. Karen McLeod

    Right after 9/11 I do believe this country was united in a will to go into Afghanistan in search of Al-qaida, not to mention the Taliban. We went in, and, funniest thing, we were winning. Then someone decided we should concentrate on Iraq instead, and another member of that administration decided we didn’t really need to commit to war, we could just scare them silly, and they’d fold (“shock and awe”). The results were both shocking and awful. Might have been nice if we’d debated our purpose there a little more before we went in. Might have been nice if we’d followed up on Afghanistan at the time, instead of deciding that war was done, and that we no longer needed attention. Might have been nice, but there was no indecision, and very little debate involved. Do we really need more decisions made that way?

  16. Bart Rogers

    Construction started on the Twin Towers in 1966 and the last tower completed in 1971. Design started in the early 1960s. To stretch a point, one can say it took approximately 11 years from initial concept and design to completion of both towers.

    Construction techniques have improved since then but the new structures are not as large or complex as the original design.

    While it may be accurate to be critical of progress to date, it may not be a true critique. There was no emotional investment in the original towers nor did they replace icons of American fiancial prowess, instead they became icons. Now, we have the new structures underway and each of us has our own idea of what they should represent.

    Progress on the site should never be a political football but should always be a reminder that no matter how small a dedicated enemy may be, they are capable of delivering a blow to the psyche’ of a nation that can have devastating consequences. A lesson we should never forget.

  17. Phillip

    I’m not so pessimistic. The country faced a much larger, more existential threat in the years 1941-1945, and responded appropriately. The threat from Islamic terrorists demanded a different kind of response, and the previous Administration went far beyond their originally appropriate response to indulge their neo-conservative geopolitical theories.

    The country stuck with that for awhile until it could stomach it no longer and turned in a different direction. I call that progress.

    Deciding what to rebuild at the 9/11 site may be an understandably messy process, but on every other issue you cited—all more critical to the country’s well-being, we have made progress, certainly more in the past year than in the years prior. The so-called War on Terror is being rethought and recalibrated, the old approach having been rejected in 2008 finally. The economic mess really exploded just a year ago, and there seems to be some small light at the end of the tunnel. Most importantly, substantial health care reform was only really undertaken once Obama took office, and I think it will be achieved, if not as sweeping as you and I might hope.

    I think America has made enormous strides in the past year, in spite of major obstacles.

  18. bud

    This illustrates typical media thinking. I’ve provided incontrovertable proof that significant progress is being made on the WTC site. The memorial in particular is well along the way to completion. Yet Brad insists that the WSJ article is completely accurate. And MSM types wonder why newspapers are dying.

  19. Maude Lebowski

    “Is a nation that divided and confused capable of continuing (is it capable, for instance, of summoning the energy to overcome our economic crisis so that I can get a job, just to bring it down to the personal level)?”

    I think this way of thinking – that your employment is dependent on the government “fixing” the economy rather than your personal innovation and drive – says more about our country’s weaknesses than the time it takes to reach concensus and rebuild the WTC.

  20. Brad Warthen

    Burl, all I can say is E Pluribus Unum. These days we’re all pluribus, no unum.

    What’s lacking is the ability to AGREE on a course of action and implement it once everyone has had his say. We used to be better at that than we are now.

    I like your analogy with the editorial board. Of course, I have a glossed-over idea of how the editorial board worked. I used to say we worked by consensus, and as far as I was concerned, we did. But my colleagues used to laugh at me sometimes when I’d say that, because they knew how often we got past a sticky point by simply doing what I, the editor, wanted.

    I used to tell the Speaker of the S.C. House, when he would complain to me ab out how hard it was to get the House together to act meaningfully on an issue, even when they had all session to do it, that I convened my board every morning and we dealt with controversial issues right then and there, working past the differences and managing to take a strong position in the end. Every day, multiple issues.

    But I was reckoning without the fact that I actually had more power over the outcome on my board than he did in the House. At some point, when the group seemed stuck and about to stall, I would just say, “OK, here’s what we’re going to say,” and whoever would be writing the piece (a matter settled by beat most of the time) would take notes. I’ve seen speakers who exercised that kind of power, too — Ned Ray McWherter used to do that in Tennessee, knocking heads together when the time for action came. Not terribly democratic, though, is it?

    There has to be a mix somehow between everyone’s views being considered and the need to act — and act effectively, and coherently, so that the effort isn’t wasted. We’ve forgotten how to make that happen in this country.

    What’s needed is leadership. But there has to be some followership, too. The WSJ columnist blasts Obama for this, saying “Barack Obama, energetic and smart, was elected largely to change all that,” but has failed.

    OK, maybe he could have led better, but we could follow better, too. Instead of what we do after every election, where the just under 50 percent that voted for the other guy refuses to follow the new leader, to even give him any benefit of doubt. We saw it with Clinton, with Bush, and now with Obama — rather than a “loyal opposition,” you get something with the mentality of armed resistance.

    People disagreed with FDR, too, and vehemently: My Dad’s first memories of political awareness involve loud arguments between my grandfather and the man down the street (my grandfather thought FDR would be the ….

  21. Brad Warthen

    I actually typed that comment last night, and in the middle of it, realized I was burning a pot of peas on the stove.

    What a night last night was! I’ll tell you about it later. I may not have time to post anything today, though. Things are still crazy…

  22. Brad Warthen

    Oh, and Maude — I wasn’t talking about the gummint fixing the economy. I was speaking in general terms about the failure of ANY part of our society, public or private, to get it together lately.

    The state of the economy, which results from many millions of simultaneous decisions by individuals, is probably the best indicator of all of how dysfunctional we are.

    Either we all decide things are going to be better, and spend and invest and hire and take risks, etc. — or nothing will get better.

  23. Kathryn Fenner

    @Karen–I think you make excellent points. I definitely felt “unum” back in 2001-2, and then not so much. Iraq is “a pot of peas burning on the stove,” in a manner of speaking.

    and all y’all who point to the totalitarian/God/dictator/king/editor/leader…yep–democracy is messy and one strong leader governments are nice and tidy. My German genes are quite fond of them.

  24. Maude Lebowski

    Brad I went back and reread and I did misinterpret your comment as “the gummint needs to get me a job.” Sorry about that.

    But I’ll still take our slow-moving, messy democracy over having the trains run on time.

  25. Steve Gordy

    One of the reasons for the slow progress at the WTC site is that it took several years of litigation and negotiation to determine who actually owned what there. You might recall that a developer acquired control shortly before 9/11.


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