12.30.11

How Occupy Wall Street Flashed New York Back to 9/11

How Occupy Wall Street, in the shadow of Ground Zero and the rising Freedom Tower, unwittingly brought New York back to the dark days just after 9/11.

Ten years ago, the streets of lower Manhattan were blocked off by barricades. The fires at Ground Zero were still burning. Streets were closed, guarded by police, as the recovery of body parts and cleaning up of ash from the worst terrorist attack in our history continued.

Ten years later, lower Manhattan has been transformed. The 16 smoldering acres of Ground Zero are now a bustling construction site, where what will be America’s tallest building–the Freedom Tower–is rising into the sky. The surrounding blocks constitute the fastest growing residential neighborhood in New York City, with a population that has nearly tripled since 9/11. My wife and I are among them.

But the barricades remain.

Bookending the decade was another, much smaller event that nonetheless captured newspaper headlines and preoccupied the media for a few weeks–the Occupy Wall Street movement. It was, at its core, a reflection of justified anger at the growing gap between the super-rich and middle class, the way that big banks caused the great recession and were bailed out on the taxpayers' dime, while average American families found themselves foreclosed on and small businesses could not get loans. But under the slogan of the 99 percent, the protest itself took on the characteristics of a counterculture collective. An anarcho-hippie commune took root in Zuccotti Park, across the street from Ground Zero.

We are allowing ourselves to be subdivided by fear into Us against Them.

The same battered Burger King on Church Street that was kept open 24 hours a day to feed rescue workers in the weeks after 9/11 was used by kids looking for a bathroom. The Brooks Brothers on the corner of Liberty Street that was briefly used as a morgue, became little more than a framing device for the protest, a symbol of the establishment absent any context.

The protesters' historic amnesia, willful or not, was jarring—the 9/11 “Truther” signs I repeatedly saw scattered among the slogans, the pamphlet by Professor Ward Churchill, who infamously called the workers at the World Trade Center “little Eichmanns” reprinted en masse among the socialist and anarchist tracts, all in the shadow of Ground Zero itself. The fact that Zuccotti Park had been covered knee-deep in ash and debris went unremarked–it was only a place to be occupied.

The encampment at Zuccotti Park has been removed, but the police barricades remain throughout the neighborhood, blocking off streets and plazas. The free low of pedestrian movement in Lower Manhattan has been further restricted not by terrorism, but in a proactive response to the possibility of sudden “occupation” by a handful of our own citizens. This is a small civic example of what Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “defining deviancy down”—we are protecting ourselves from ourselves.

The threat of terrorism remains real. We have stopped more than 45 attempted jihadist plots in the 10 years since 9/11. The police presence in the historic financial district is appropriate and, for the time being, probably inevitable. But the deployment of police and preponderance of barricades solely to stop protestors manages to demean everyone involved in this extended stare-down.

History is alive in the streets of lower Manhattan. This is where Washington was inaugurated, where Jefferson and Hamilton walked and debated. Federal Hall, at the corner of Wall and Nassau, is where the Bill of Rights was drafted. Yes, it is a symbol of global finance, but it is also a growing neighborhood filled with young families. And for our lifetimes at least, the memory of the working men and women who lost their lives on 9/11—and the 343 firefighters who died trying to save them—deserves maximum respect and constant appreciation.

The trick in a civil society is to honor the past while building a better future. There needs to be a sense of mutual responsibility between citizens, no matter their principled differences, however imperfectly expressed. This requires perspective, and perspective seems to be the thing we have least of in our contemporary political debates. But surely the shadow of Ground Zero should be able spark a sense of perspective, even among those too young to have experienced that attack as adults.

The police barricades throughout lower Manhattan are a rebuke to the larger lessons of 9/11, a sign of civic myopia. Not only are we allowing the threats of a comparatively small number of people to determine the free flow of citizens in this historic neighborhood, we are allowing ourselves to be subdivided by fear into Us against Them. Removing most barricades might constitute some small risk, but it is risk that comes with self-government. Protesters aren't terrorists, and if they break the law, there's a simple corrective: they can be arrested. Above all, we should know by now that whatever comes, we can take it.