To the Top of the World, Again - OZY | A Modern Media Company

To the Top of the World, Again

To the Top of the World, Again

By Dennis Kneale

SourceLeonardo Patrizi/Getty


Because for many of us, 9/11 still hurts.

By Dennis Kneale

It’s about time, dammit. 

Thirteen years after terrorists took down the twin towers of the World Trade Center and killed 2,753 people, the first tenants are moving into the new 104-story Freedom Tower, built on the same site. Rebuilding, right there where so much crisis and tragedy went down, is something I yearned for from the first moments after the towers collapsed. 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 Freedom Tower: It’s like one giant, upstretched middle finger aimed at the sky. 

That is why I love the 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 a few nights ago, asking, “What kind of arrogant, Floyd Mayweather crap is this?”

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 in half 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 remember wanting a far-off shot of smoldering Lower Manhattan, with a huge headline — “Build It Again” — emblazoned over the entire thing. (They went with a Talking Heads alternative: “Life During Wartime.”)

On Sept. 11, 2001, I watched the buildings burn from my rooftop in Brooklyn Heights. I never thought they’d go down.

The attack on the twin towers was also 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 the WTC, I had 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. I never thought they’d go down.

Smoke from a tower building in flames

Smoke pours out of the World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

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. Everything looked different, even the falafel cart on Atlantic Avenue, where men in Muslim garb and I eyed each other and said tentative hellos. The mosque on brownstone State Street, which I’d barely noticed, suddenly became an odd intruder. Even 13 years later, I 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. In hardship, in crisis, I have always tried to find some kind of solace, some good thing to come out of the bad. On the promenade that night, I had nothing.

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 insecure — way. That change is indelible. The fear and sadness have abated, maybe, but they remain. In the latest turn in the ISIS crisis, my 76-year-old mother has become a doomsday prepper. She has arranged to ship me a 6-month supply of freeze-dried emergency food — “cheesy lasagne” and “chili macaroni” — in case some briefcase nuke detonates at JFK. Enough for me and my daughter. It troubles me that I agreed to the plan, that such a silly, paranoid measure is so plausible.

Courage isn’t a lack of fear — it’s the ability to overcome your fear.

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 surrounded the World Trade Center. And as the first 175 employees of Condé Nast’s 3,400-person staff start to inhabit the first open floors of the Freedom Tower, another piece of our comeback comes into place. The tower is said to have signed leases for only 60 percent of the total space, but time will fill the rest. 

The tower is the tallest in the Western Hemisphere, a fitting 1,776 feet high, built over the past 12 years for $3.9 billion. On the 102nd story is an observation deck that will open in the spring. On Saturday Night Live, Chris Rock rather tastelessly said the Freedom Tower might as well be known as the “Never Going in There Tower, ’cause 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.


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