An American Comeback

The reconstruction of the World Trade Center, now nearing completion, aspires to mark the beginning of a new era in American history.

As Steven Plate, head of WTC construction, said at the hoisting of the flag-enwrapped 408-foot spire, it will “give a tremendous indication to people around the entire region and the world that we are back and we are better than ever.”

It is that spire that will earn it the ranking — at 1,776 feet high — of the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and the third-tallest in the world. (The title of world’s tallest still belongs to Burj Khalifa in Dubai at 2,722 feet.)

Although the spire has some utilitarian features — a beacon to warn off aircraft and a broadcasting antenna — it has no commercial or structural justification. Nobody will live up there, and it will contain no office space for rental and no exclusive restaurants.

Its real significance is symbolic. Like the height of the new WTC recalling the birth of the nation, and the LED-powered light emanating from it that will be seen from miles away, it will symbolize an American comeback. There’s a taller building or two elsewhere, but none with the unique drama of the WTC.

Indeed, tall buildings in general have always had as much to do with symbolism as any commercial or industrial purpose. As architect Louis Sullivan wrote: “What is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? It is lofty. It must be tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exaltation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line.”

Even though skyscrapers were pushed upward by the price of urban real estate that made it economical to build vertically rather than horizontally, they were from the outset synonymous with modern industrial prowess and pride. Only the availability in modern times of fossil fuels and materials such as steel and glass, reinforced concrete and the high-speed elevator made it possible to build so high.

It also reflects the priority of symbolism that while the spire-hoisting earned wide media coverage, no comparable fanfare will be given to what are arguably more important features, such as new safety designs, made so vital by the attack of September 11.

The extra-wide staircases to facilitate evacuation, high-strength cement blast walls at the base to withstand truck bombs, and new steel alloys that can resist the inferno temperatures of explosive devices, are not as photogenic as a spire. These innovations were generated by the post-9/11 counter-terrorism focus, but they do not inspire like a spire.

It was the symbolism of the Twin Towers which, in the first place, caused so much trauma to Americans. Had it not been for its dominant image as a world center of commerce and technology, the very high point of national pride, its destruction would not have been so traumatic. More Americans have been killed in Iraq (4,486) and Afghanistan (2,077) than the September 11 attack (2,606 at the World Trade Center and 125 at the Pentagon), and the nation honors their sacrifice; but those deaths were cumulative over years, and in distant combat zones; September 11 was a moment of unparalleled civilian massacre on American soil.

There is, too, a certain amount of bravado in the proclamations of comeback. The new tower almost dares the terrorists to try it again. But we know that even the highest-tech safety precautions cannot guarantee safety. Nor can the vast Department of Homeland Security created since 9/11 guarantee that other, more vulnerable targets, like the Boston Marathon, will not be attacked.

In addition, once upon a time, skyscrapers were emblematic of “the American Century.” The rest of the world looked on in awe as America built “proud and soaring things” that no one else could match. But today, other countries have their skyscrapers; and the U.S. economy still struggles to recover from recession while competition threatens from places like China, India and Brazil, parts of the world that were defenseless against American and European domination in the not-so-distant past.

As the irresistible rise of American power has ended, the arrogance of power has diminished. The very fact that America is struggling to reassert itself and that a comeback is needed gives poignancy to this juncture in history. Despite confident predictions, the success of that comeback remains an uncertain thing. It requires a new kind of courage and determination, one that knows that inviolability is an illusion, and that there are limits to what we can do.

To be sure, greatness in the Torah view is not found in massive building projects, but in study and self-perfection. But we too can derive inspiration from the rebuilding of the World Trade Center as a metaphor for human survival and achievement. For we have known edifices of spirit grander than any skyscraper, which have been destroyed, and yet time and again we have found the wherewithal to rebuild.