Five years later, there is still a chalky, acrid dust that bites at the back of your throat as you descend into the pit of ground zero.
I made it down all four levels Sunday to peer at the thin strips of rebar poking through the dirt where the foundation of the new Freedom Tower is only now being laid—before a secret service agent shooed me back upstairs.
The Bushes were on their way, he said. Only the White House traveling press pool was allowed on this hallowed ground.
So I and the rest of the media were left to gawk from the perimeter when the president came to pay his respects at the gravesite of the World Trade Center for the first time in four years.
Flanked by Governor George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and ex-mayor Rudy Giuliani, George and Laura made their way, hand in hand, down the long, flag-lined ramp that descends into the pit.
As a trio of bagpipers played, a member of the honor guard handed the first couple a floral wreath to place in the small plywood-framed reflecting pool at the center of the north tower’s footprint. The president and first lady set the wreath afloat and stood there, heads bowed, for two minutes, then made their way to the other makeshift reflecting pool at the footprint of the south tower.
Were their faces clouded with sorrow or anguish for the wasted lives, and the horrifying chaos that befell us on 9-11?
Impossible to tell from such a distance. Bush said nothing, and the ceremony was over in less than 10 minutes. “They’re not even going to walk back up,” remarked one of the union electricians on site, as the president and Laura climbed into a black SUV and drove up the ramp, trailed by several carloads of secret service and press, and the wail of bagpipers playing “America the Beautiful.”
Up top, the Bushes stopped to meet with grieving fire crews and family members, then stood at the viewing area that overlooks the pit for several more minutes, as a police helicopter hovered overhead.
Then sirens flared and the president’s motorcade went zooming past us, on the way to a prayer service at St. Paul’s Chapel, the church across the street from the World Trade Center that served as a refuge for exhausted rescue workers. Again, we were told, only the president’s traveling press pool was allowed inside.
I’d come to watch Bush rake the wounds of the terrorist attacks yet again to justify his disastrous war in Iraq and the deepening chaos in Afghanistan, while his Department of Homeland Security continues to shaft New York for anti-terror funds, and the feds are only now coughing up dollars to treat the first responders sickened from toiling in the fouled air.
But his performance Sunday night seemed strangely muted—as empty as the ground zero construction site. (He’s making his war pitch during a primetime speech tonight at 9, which will briefly interrupt the airing of ABC’s fictionalized docudrama, “The Path to 9-11”). The guys from Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers didn’t mind hanging out for the ceremony. They were getting paid overtime to make sure that the lights stayed on and the water pumps kept pumping in the pit while the president was there.
“He has a right to be here, but he should have been down here last year, and the year before that. Every year he should have been here,” commented Charlie Jefferson, an electrician from Queens who’s been working at ground zero since 2003.
“He promised this was going to be rebuilt quick, he promised he was going to get $40 billion to help New York recover, but the guys who were down here working every day and getting sick got cut off,” Jefferson continued. “There’s people dying and not getting funding for all these medicines they have to take—it’s coming out of their own pockets. These people should have been taken care of from day one.”
For these union members, the visceral sorrow of 9-11 is impossible to forget. “You go down to the well of souls, and you can feel the people here,” says fellow electrician Paul Incantalupo, referring to a largely intact sub-basement of the World Trade Center where the bank vaults were, and where water was pumped in to cool the complex.
“You feel something breezing past you, like a spirit,” Incantalupo explains. “You get a chill, but there’s no wind down there. I think it’s the people who did it, who can’t find peace. Because the people who died innocently would have found peace already.”
Incantalupo hasn’t found peace either. “Why hasn’t Bin Laden been caught?” he wonders.
The gaggle of protesters corralled in a protest pen around the corner at Church and Vesey streets were asking similar questions. By midday Sunday, dozens of demonstrators—from Raging Grannies and Buddhists, to Veterans for Peace and the conspiracy-harping 9-11 “truth” squads—had gathered on the east side of ground zero.
But when the president and his media entourage came downtown, the police made sure to push any inkling of dissent out of sight and sound. (One woman holding a “Waiting for Peace” sign was arrested for refusing to leave the perimeter.)
Given the lengths Bush has gone to exploit 9-11, you’d think the anti-war movement might have mounted a more forthright demonstration to challenge his visit here, now that even the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee has admitted there was no link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.
But unlike Bush, the anti-war coalition United for Peace and Justice and many of its progressive allies decided they couldn’t risk appearing to politicize 9-11 for their own ends. So they’re playing it safe with an innocuous “Camp Democracy” pitched on the mall in D.C., an effort being dutifully ignored by the mainstream media.
The 9-11 conspiracists, who hosted a fifth anniversary conference this weekend, are doing their best to fill the vacuum. They’re keeping vigil at ground zero from 8 a.m. on Monday to tell everyone who will listen how the twin towers and the Pentagon were blown up by the Bush Administration.
There is also a 5 p.m. vigil for the “forgotten” undocumented workers who were sickened during the clean-up and decontamination of ground zero.
And at 7 p.m. Monday, an ad hoc group of “anti-fascists” is calling for a “showdown at ground zero” to confront the hijacking of 9-11 by a “nationalist, racist, pro-war agenda” head on.
Of course, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the antiwarriors are the appeasers of fascists.
On this 9-11 anniversary, watch how that fascist label gets twisted.