This is a paper I wrote in college, when I was more interested in politics. I was reading it today to help me remember September 11 - not that I need much help remembering that day - and the aftermath at the site and in our country. It is not very emotional because the premise is that “Politics is everywhere”. But it did help me to remember in a way I haven’t since those first few years.
And ironically, I got a B+ on the paper with the comment “too dramatic”. A criticism of my writing that I will take any day.
The story of American Ground by William Langewiesche is an account of the events following the World Trade Towers collapse at the actual site. But on another level, it is the story of the American nation at its birth. It is new territory, new land. People from different backgrounds and beliefs came and worked. Soon, it became self-governing, an organized political process where the people could work together in order accomplish their goals. It began with pure intentions, but soon, as in every self-interested society, there was conflict. People had their own ideas of what should be done, and formed groups that drew lines of dissent.
Ground Zero was this new land, “a blank slate for the United States. Among the ruins now, an unscripted experiment in American life had gotten under way.” There was no authority or formal process. There was not even any understanding of what had really happened, or what had to be done. There was just a vague knowledge that nothing like this had happened before, and that “the problems that had to be solved were largely unprecedented.” People from all different backgrounds began to run to the site, wanting only to be of use. “The reaction… cut across the city’s class lines as New Yorkers of all backgrounds tried to respond.”People did whatever they thought would help - bucket brigades, digging, and putting out fires - but “for a few days the site was out of control.” With no structure, the site was anarchy and nothing of note was accomplished. Soon, however, “a crude management structure was agreed upon, and most of the volunteers were eased out to the ruins’ periphery, to be replaced at the core by a professional labor force….” Politics had entered the scene and provided a way to work towards a common goal. A hierarchy emerged, and with that, a plan for which the workers could undertake. People even began to use the language of politics, referring to the site as a “kingdom” or to a leader as a “czar.” Lines of disagreement soon came into view, and interest groups began to lobby for their own desires. And finally, a certain sense of ownership, almost pride toward the site, became the norm, similar to a feeling one might have towards their country.
In the early days of the deconstruction efforts, anarchy reigned like the night. No one knew what was going on, how great the damages were, or even if they were making any difference. But soon, however, several individuals surfaced like rays of light, claiming authority where there was none, and beginning the political process. “Leading the effort was the unlikely duo of Kenneth Holden and his lieutenant, Michael Burton – the two Department of Design and Construction officials who had emerged from bureaucratic obscurity… to orchestrate an effective response to the disaster.” These two assumed authority, although they were never given it formally. As the author points out, “Burton had not the slightest authority here at the Trade Center site, but he was willing to assume it anyway.” He and Holden rose to the occasion and brought with them a plan for getting the job done. Other men, too, rose to the authority that they were never formally given. Sam Melisi, a fireman, had an “authority [that] translated into the power to make suggestions that others were willing to follow.” With his authority, as with Holden’s and Burton’s, came power that others listened to.
People at the site soon began to use words that are frequently associated with politics. There was no escaping the political framework within which they worked and political words were what they had to use to describe it. Some referred to Mike Burton as the “Trade Center Czar”, illustrating his power and authoritative manner. The author describes the Port Authority as more of an “empire” than an organization, because of its vast territory around the city. Giuliani was angrily referred to as a “fascist”by the firemen’s union because they saw him as trying to lead an authoritarian government and not taking their views into consideration. The author even notes the political nature of the site, especially when he says to Burton: “It’s your kingdom, Mike. It’s your empire.” And even the pile itself became political, “the pile was the enemy, the objective, the obsession, the hard-won ground…” as if the workers were at war with it, or on it, or were fighting for it.
In any political organization, there will always be people who have different interests. At Ground Zero, the deconstruction began to cause conflicts among these different groups. Timing was an issue, and every group wanted their say. The firemen, who seemed to be the most vocal interest group, began to demonstrate publicly in order to make their views known. The policemen were another interest group, having “tribal allegiances” as well and having “had lost twenty-three colleagues in the Trade Center collapse.”The Mayor’s Office was another interest group and Giuliani decided that “access would be restricted, new procedures would be imposed at the pile, and the number of searchers would be reduced by two-thirds.” This did not sit well with the firemen, who did not want to have their numbers reduced, and wanted to be able to search for those they had lost as slowly as they needed. Conflict arose between these interests and decisions had to be made as to how to keep them all content. Another interest group was comprised of the widows of the men who had died in the collapse. Like all the other groups, it was not representative of “the thousands of others who had lost family on September 11…” but these women had their own idea of what should be done. This conflict soon came to a head and those in charge realized that they would have to start running the operation in accordance with the views of others, not just their own.
The pile soon became a home away from home for those that worked on it. They were there day and night causing a deep sense of ownership, almost pride in what was being done there. Several of the interest groups began to feel a “jealous sense of ownership… that ‘this is our disaster more than yours.’” They felt that this pile that they were working on was their land. In a strange way, this feeling was similar to what the rest of the country was feeling – this is our land, and we will not have others destroying it. The patriotism at the pile was a feeling of pride in their land.
Politics is everywhere. It is an instrument, a tool, for progress. It provides a process and the authority to accomplish a goal. The story of the deconstruction of the World Trade Center Towers gives a picture, a visible symbol, of the effectiveness and ubiquitousness of politics. This abstract idea manifests itself in the work that is done there, through the hierarchy and structure that emerges, the language that is used, the various groups that lobby for their own interests, and even the patriotism and sense of ownership that is shown to the site. Without politics, the job would not have gotten done and the scramble of anarchy would continue to complicate matters. Politics is necessary, whether at a site of deconstruction or in the birth of a new country.