N.Y.'s bittersweet momentBy: Maggie Haberman
May 2, 2011
As the nation learned details of how Osama bin Laden’s life was ended, New York politicians and residents sought Tuesday to distill the broader impact of his death in the city most affected by his murderous legacy.
In Washington and elsewhere, the political implications were the subject of widespread discussion. But in New York, elected officials were clearly grasping to find the right tone – one that balanced the importance of bin Laden’s killing against the grim imprint he left on New York, where the decade-long slog toward his capture saw the city struggle to deal with thousands of workers sickened as a result of Sept. 11 cleanup efforts, and a World Trade Center site that has only recently found momentum toward rebuilding.
“He’s dead,” New York’s senior Sen. Chuck Schumer told MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough. ”And we’re here. And this morning, I have to decide, I have to give a speech on how New York can grow.”
Schumer, in a later, long-scheduled speech to the Association for a Better New York, said he thought about canceling his remarks. Instead, he decided to keep the engagement because he wanted to focus on moving New York forward.
“It’s a little hard to have a smile on your face,” Mayor Bloomberg, who took office as the smoke was still curling out of Ground Zero some three months following the terror attacks, told reporters at a press conference at the site. “On the other hand, I think we’re all glad that the military did keep America’s commitment.”
The bittersweet reaction to the news of Bin Laden’s demise was a tacit recognition that the long, grueling arc that began in 2001 had not yet come to its end in New York.
His capture and killing came sooner than the rebuilding of the trade center site – which has finally moved to a more pronounced level in the past two years, with construction obscuring the bedrock.
Over the course of the decade,the site had become a flashpoint for conflict. There were bitter protests over a proposed lower Manhattan mosque last year. In another fight, a dispute that had centered largely on memorializing the dead and how to use thousands of lost square footage of office and retail space transitioned into a battle to help thousands of first responders suffering a range of ailments caused by the toxic cloud of debris from the fallen towers. Only last fall did legislation named for a fallen police officer, James Zadroga, pass after several failed attempts in Congress.
“I had mixed emotions,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters. “On one hand there’s a sense of relief. .. finally, there’s a sense of completion. There’s a sense of closure.”
He added, “You really couldn’t put it behind you without closing this chapter. … on the other hand, it brings you back to 9/11.”
Still, the boundaries of the 16-acre World Trade Center site and Times Square were flooded with people Sunday night, a large swath of whom were tourists. Many others were college age youths, with only a minimal connection to the pain that gripped the city after the bin Laden-engineered attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
A range of visitors continued to arrive at the site throughout the day Monday.
“Osama bin Laden is dead, and the World Trade Center site is teeming with new life,” Bloomberg said at the site. “Osama bin Laden is dead, and Lower Manhattan is pulsing with new activity. Osama bin Laden is dead, and New York City’s spirit has never been stronger.. Ten years ago a terrible evil visited this place. Today, let the spirits that are all around us know some peace and justice.”
Several victims’ relatives noted that they could never have complete closure, and that while news of bin Laden’s death at the hands of the U.S. military was a meaningful event, their loved ones were still gone.
“I don’t want anybody to go off on the wrong track. This is fantastic, this is great, the best news I’ve heard in God knows how long. We killed that cancer,” said Lee Ielpi, who lost his firefighter son Jonathan in the attacks. “But we cannot lose focus on tomorrow…It’ll never bring back my son or anybody’s loved one but we have to stay focused on tomorrow. ”
Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson, who worked for Hillary Clinton for much of the last decade, said bin Laden was “one of history’s worst mass murderers. And his death isn’t going to bring back any of the people who were lost on 9/11. But I do think it was important to track him down and deliver justice to him, and hopefully that brings some comfort to the families of victims.”
One veteran New York government hand pointed to the fact that life went on around the site and throughout the city on Monday, with a level of heightened security but not noticeably more than what was in place right after the attacks, and off-and-on in the years since.
In the decade since nearly 3,000 people died in lower Manhattan, the meaning of the site and the event has evolved. Initially, passions and anger were centered around a drawn-out rebuilding process, one that debated how the site would be rebuilt—and how to appropriately memorialize the dead.
The focus was also heavily centered on the first responders who perished – 343 firefighters, 23 New York Police Department members and 37 Port Authority Police – and how they would be memorialized. Mention of their sacrifice became a staple of discussion justifying the U.S. wars overseas.
With the attacks serving as at least a partial backdrop, two of the state’s most prominent politicians ran for president in 2008. Clinton, who initially championed the early version of the Zadroga bill, has since left her U.S. Senate seat to become Secretary of State, and Rudy Giuliani contemplates a second run from a perch still known as “America’s mayor.”
Giuliani noted on the “Today” show that Sunday’s news might make the 10th anniversary of the attacks this September slightly easier, adding that hopefully “some of the burden has lifted.”
Yet Rep. Pete King, a Republican congressman from Long Island who focused strongly on passing the Zadroga bill, said some people have lost memory of what the attacks meant.
“Some have,” he said, adding, “Human nature being what it is it’s a lot easier to …try to put it in the back of your head .”
But he said that was a mistake, and that it was important for leaders to remind citizens that a terrorist threat is now a constant way of life.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat whose district encompasses Ground Zero, told Fox 5 New York, “People who breathed in the toxic fumes are going to be sick and dying for many, many years. This is not closure. The results of this will be with us for a very long time.”