In its not-so-brief and thoroughly unhappy life, ground zero has been a site for many things: tragedy and grief, political campaigns and protests, battling architects and warring cultural institutions, TV commercials and souvenir hustlers. Perhaps it was inevitable we'd end up at pure unadulterated farce.
That's where we are as of this Memorial Day weekend. A 1,776-foot Freedom Tower with no tenants - and no prospect of tenants - has been abruptly sent back to the drawing board after the Marx Brothers-like officials presiding over the chaos acknowledged troubling security concerns about truck bombs. But truck bombs may be the least of the demons scaring away prospective occupants. The simple question that no one could answer the day after 9/11 remains unanswered today: What sane person would want to work in a skyscraper destined to be the most tempting target for aerial assault in the Western world? As if to accentuate this obvious, if frequently suppressed, psychological bottom line, news of the Freedom Tower's latest delay was followed like clockwork by a Cessna's easy penetration of supposedly secure air space near the White House, prompting panicky evacuation scenes out of the 50's horror classic "The Day the Earth Stood Still."
And so ground zero remains a pit, a hole, a void. As The New York Post has noticed, more time has passed since George Pataki first unveiled the "final design" of the Freedom Tower than it took to build the Empire State Building. For New Yorkers this saga is a raucous political narrative whose cast of characters includes a rapacious real-estate developer, a seriously irritating architect with even more irritating designer eyeglasses, a governor with self-delusional presidential ambitions and a mayor obsessed with bringing New York the only target that may rival the Freedom Tower as terrorist bait, the Olympics.
But there is another, national narrative here, too. Bothered as New Yorkers may be by what Charles Schumer has termed the "culture of inertia" surrounding ground zero, that stagnation may accurately reflect most of America's view about the war on terror that began with the slaughter of more than 2,700 at the World Trade Center almost four years ago. Though the vacant site is a poor memorial for those who died there, it's an all too apt symbol for a war on which the country is turning its back.
This is a dramatic change from just a year ago. In the heat of election season, the Bush-Cheney campaign set off a melee by broadcasting ads that featured the shell of the World Trade Center and shrouded remains being borne away by firefighters. Ground zero was hallowed ground, and the outcry against its political exploitation was so fierce that the ensuing Republican National Convention went nowhere near the site that had made New York its cynical choice of venue in the first place. Instead, the prospect of terror and the hot-button-pushing invocations of 9/11 were shoveled into the oratory at Madison Square Garden, where Rudolph Giuliani had a star turn. All the post-election talk of "moral values" notwithstanding, the terrorism card proved the decisive factor in the defeat of John Kerry, a character whose genius for equivocating on just about any issue rendered him a pantywaist against an opponent who had stood with a bullhorn in the smoky wreckage and had promised to round up the bad guys "dead or alive."
But once the election was over, ground zero was tossed aside like a fading mistress. The only time it has figured in national public discourse since was when the president nominated Bernard Kerik director of homeland security. The most damaging of the subsequent allegations against this 9/11 hero - that he had used an apartment for rescue workers overlooking the site as a hot-sheets motel for an extramarital tryst - didn't just end his government career; it effectively downsized ground zero from sacred ground into crude comic fodder for late-night comics. The fallen cultural status of the site in the months since is epitomized by the recent news conference at which Donald Trump thought nothing of showcasing his own stunt plan for ground zero (building replicas of the twin towers, only a story higher) as a promotional tie-in to the season finale of his reality show, "The Apprentice." Though there was some outrage among the 9/11 families, everyone else either giggled or shrugged (and "The Apprentice" was still eviscerated by "CSI").
Such lassitude about the day that was supposed to change everything is visible everywhere. Tom Ridge, now retired as homeland security czar, recently went on "The Daily Show" and joined in the yuks about the color-coded alerts. (He also told USA Today this month that orange alerts were sometimes ordered by the administration - as election year approached, anyway - on flimsy grounds and over his objections.) In February, the Office of Management and Budget found that "only four of the 33 homeland security programs it examined were 'effective,' " according to The Washington Post. The prospect of nuclear terrorism remains minimally addressed; instead we must take heart from Kiefer Sutherland's ability to thwart a nuclear missile hurling toward Los Angeles in the season finale of "24." The penetration of the capital's most restricted air space by that errant Cessna - though deemed a "red alert" - was considered such a nonurgent event by the Secret Service that it didn't bother to tell the president, bicycling in Maryland, until after the coast was clear.
But what has most separated America from the old exigencies of 9/11 - and therefore from the fate of ground zero - is, at long last, the decoupling of the war on terror from the war on Iraq. The myth fostered by the administration that Saddam Hussein conspired in the 9/11 attacks is finally dead and so, apparently, is the parallel myth that Iraqis were among that day's hijackers. Our initial, post-9/11 war against Al Qaeda - the swift and decisive victory over the Taliban - is now seen as both a discrete event and ancient history (as is the hope of nailing Osama bin Laden dead or alive); Afghanistan itself has fallen off the American radar screen except as a site for burgeoning poppy production and the deaths of detainees in American custody. In its place stands only the war in Iraq, which is increasingly seen as an add-on to the war provoked by 9/11 and whose unpopularity grows by the day.
Take a look at any recent poll you choose - NBC/Wall Street Journal, Harris, CNN/Gallup/USA Today - and you find comparable figures of rising majority disapproval of the war. Or ignore the polls and look at those voting with their feet: the Army has missed its recruiting goals three months in a row, and the Marines every month since January, despite reports of scandalous ethical violations including the forging of high-school diplomas and the hoodwinking of the mentally ill by unscrupulous recruiters. Speaking bitterly about the Army's strenuous effort to cover up his son's death by friendly fire, Pat Tillman's father crystallized the crisis in an interview with The Washington Post last week: "They realized that their recruiting efforts were going to go to hell in a handbasket if the truth about this death got out. They blew up their poster boy."
THE cost of the war is rapidly becoming the routine stuff of mainstream popular culture. July 27 will bring the debut of "Over There," a powerful new weekly TV drama by Steven Bochco ("NYPD Blue") and Chris Gerolmo ("Mississippi Burning") that takes no political stand on the war but dramatizes the ripped torsos, broken homefront lives and unknown expiration date of our Iraq adventure in the unsparing detail that has often been absent from network news. The show is being presented not by some liberal cabal but by the rising cable network that "Nip/Tuck" built - FX - a franchise of Rupert Murdoch. On June 21 FX is also bringing back Denis Leary's jaundiced look at post-9/11 firefighters, "Rescue Me." In the first new episode, the hero throws a bag of "twin-tower cookies" back at the vendor selling them, heaving in anger that those who died that fateful morning have been usurped by kitsch.
Tomorrow, Memorial Day itself, will bring another "Nightline" reading of the names of the fallen: the more than 900 Americans who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since Ted Koppel's previous recitation. When he read 721 names in April 2004, Mr. Koppel was labeled a traitor by the right for daring to call attention to the casualties, and some affiliates even refused to broadcast the show. This time the prospect of a televised roll call of the dead has caused little notice at all. Like the latest setbacks at ground zero, it is a troubling but increasingly distant event to those Americans who, unlike the families and neighbors of the fallen, can and have turned the page.
© 2005 New York Times, Co.