Save the Condé Nast maidens from the Tower of Terror!

Scrutinizing culture.
June 1 2011 5:29 PM

Save the Condé Nast Maidens!

Don't lock them up in the WTC Tower of Terror.

An artist's rendering of One World Trade Center. Click image to expand.
An artist's rendering of One World Trade Center

The Devil wears Kevlar? Die HardWith a Blusher? "Hazmat: This spring's must-have fabric!"

I'm sorry: It's not a joke. The hard-to-believe decision by magazine empire Condé Nast (publisher of Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Wired, and Glamour, among others) to move the city's hot center of creative talent from its current Times Square headquarters to the never-ending security nightmare known as "Freedom Tower" at Ground Zero, may be one of the single most questionable corporate decisions in New York City history.

Oh, forgive me, right, did I say "Freedom Tower"? Sorry, the 1776-foot tall (take that, al-Qaida! 1776 in yo' face!) replacement for the Twin Towers has been renamed! The false bravado of "Freedom Tower"—especially for a building whose security precautions will make it more like a supermax prison tower—has been replaced (in 2009) by the dignified, nonprovocative reticence of "One World Trade Center." (The new thinking, I guess: no use in unduly provoking al-Qaida—after all, they hate our freedoms!)

The name change has not diminished the folly of the whole building-as-symbolic-gesture, nor has it eliminated the fear factor in forcing thousands of middle-class and working-class employees to serve as live bait in World Terrorist Target No. 1. (Why not name it that?) Because the security concerns that were there from the beginning have not gone away, and the fixes for the flaws in the security have not been proven, and the site planners have been shown over and over again to be shockingly, scandalously inept.

What were they thinking at Condé Nast? Make a grand defiant gesture of their corporate boldness to the world? That seems to be the message of the blue-sky-filled full-page ads they've taken out in newspapers that proclaim the Terror Tower buy-in with the phrase "See You Downtown." Is the idea that no terrorist would dare risk Condé Nast's paralyzing death ray: an Anna Wintour frown?

Of course, such grand gestures by big shots (did they consult their employees about how they felt about being moved into World Terrorist Target No. 1?) often don't work out so well for the ordinary folk who must back them up. I'm thinking of the crews of the Titanic and the Hindenburg, for instance. Doesn't Condé Nast know the sketchy security history of this foolish project? Haven't they wondered why Mayor Bloomberg has not rushed to install his minions in World Terrorist Target No. 1?

I began writing about this six years ago when the NYPD counterterrorism squad, the best in the business, spoke about the dangers surrounding the emperor's new skyscraper. Things quieted down after some cosmetic fixes, but suddenly the confluence of the Condé Nast lease pledge (1 million square feet!) and a disturbing floor plan leak once again brought to the fore the folly and danger this unnecessary gift to terrorists represents.

The leak serves to spotlight, through the fog of sycophantic rah-rah media coverage, the comic-if-it-were-not-tragic nearsightedness demonstrated by the bureaucrats in charge.

These two events were accompanied by the fiasco of the "prism glass" (more anon) and the "Oops, we forgot the bathrooms" idiocy at the 9/11 museum. You may have missed, in the blizzard of screw-ups, the fact that the site's National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum—future destination point for thousands of busloads of schoolchildren—failed to provide a single restroom. Just another instance demonstrating the subprime intelligence of the site planners. If Ground Zero is not a national scandal by now, it should be, especially with all the 9/11 10th Anniversary sentimentality coming up. Meanwhile, Freedom Tower 2.0's completion date has been pushed back for the umpteenth time, now to 2013. Don't hold your breath. These are not the whip-smart people you want to trust your loved ones' safety with when people all over the world are plotting to kill them in their workplace.

Did you (did Condé Nast?) miss reading about the "confidential" floor plan leak last month? Documents marked "confidential" and containing floor plans for One World Trade Center were posted and made available to terrorists on New York City's website by mistake in May. Something revealed, conveniently, after the Condé Nast deal had been announced.

Well, al-Qaida has no reason lately for renewed interest in the World Trade Center anyway. That's so 2001. Oh, right.

 According to WCBS news radio, here are the truly scary details:

There are 17 documents stamped confidential showing every nook and cranny—including load-bearing walls, mechanical rooms, and ground floor entrances—of the still under construction tower in Lower Manhattan.

That concerns counterterrorism expert Makie Haberfeld of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"This absolutely gives the potential terrorist the blueprint of how to enter, how to defend themselves if there is a counterattack against them," she says. "I think it's in a way irresponsible on the part of the organizations that decided to that."

She says the documents provide a basis for a Mumbai-style attack.

Have the Condé Nast big shots talked to her? You know, just for a second opinion from an unbiased (non-real-estate-hustler) source?

Oh, but, hey, no worries, bro, the Port Authority (the New York/New Jersey entity that owns Ground Zero) said that the really super secret "confidential" details of the floor plan (forget the "load-bearing walls"; do the terrorists know where the snack kitchens will be located?) had been "scrubbed" from the 17 documents and that the docs should not have been labeled "confidential." That's reassuring. Everyone knows terrorists aren't interested in "load-bearing walls." And the attitude of the planners is What, me worry? It's OK if a document marked "confidential" gets posted on the Web.

Besides, the 9/11 attackers didn't try a "Mumbai style" attack—invading buildings and killing with automatic weapons firepower—on 9/11, so we don't have to worry about one now, right? They always use the same method on any given building, right? Of course, there was that 1993 basement bomb in the WTC, but, still ...

And, as for an aerial attack, like last time, well, maybe the original pre-"scrubbed," "confidential" documents showed the emplacements for the anti-aircraft guns built into the load bearing walls—the very walls the building will have to defend if the sleepy FAA and NORAD can't scramble jets quickly enough, as they failed to do last time.

So, rest easy, Condé Nasties, they got you covered from almost every angle except ground, air, and underground attack in this incredibly supersafe building.

In fact, it's the safest building in the world! Well, almost. Here's what usually savvy NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly (probably under pressure from real estate types) had to say about it last December. See if you find it reassuring:

Landlords, managing agents and tenants will change over time, but the threat to the World Trade Center will persist, as demonstrated by al-Qaida's 2006 plot to set off explosives in the PATH tubes and flood the World Trade Center and Lower Manhattan. Rather than give way to this threat, the NYPD and the Port Authority are working together to make the World Trade Center the safest work environment in the world.

And then he added (do I detect a note of desperation?):

Now is the time for anyone with alternate ideas for securing the site to present them for consideration.

They admit they don't know if there's a better plan than the one they're putting in place! They're still hoping someone can come up with something better, something more likely to work. Kevlar bubble wrap?

If that's the best the commish can give the real estate types to sell on, it ain't much. According to the city's Police Commissioner, Condé Nast is moving into a building under a threat that will "persist" indefinitely, as long as the building lasts. But they're working on it! Note that he didn't say it was "the safest work environment in the world." He said they're "working to" (as in toward) making it that. How far away they are from that goal he didn't say. What a brilliant gesture on Condé Nast's part to lease 1 million square feet in the No. 1 terror target in the world without an ironclad security plan in place. I hope they got a nice price.

And despite one commenter calling my WTC security stories "a lonely crusade," I was not entirely alone when I first raised these questions. Here's Frank Rich, writing in the New York Times several weeks after me: "The simple question that no one could answer the day after 9/11 remains unanswered today: What sane person would want to work in a skyscraper destined to be the most tempting target for aerial assault in the Western world?"

And then almost simultaneously Kurt Andersen, in his New York magazine column, called upon the Ground Zero bureaucrats to "Forget the idea that we are obliged to build a super tall high rise for symbolic purposes, to defy the terrorists, or 'repair' the skyline. The skyline was fabulous before the Twin Towers and Al Qaeda will not be diminished a jot" by offering "a provocation to ambitious terrorists around the world."

He added this question: "Will the inspirational jolt we enjoy in 2009 by having demonstrated our architectural gumption, outweigh the horror we will feel if that [edifice] is bombed in 2010?" (Failure to finish on time is the main factor that's kept the Freedom Tower safe so far.)

A look back at the first security scandal is instructive: One of the things the NYPD counterterrorism squad insisted on was that the base of the tower be moved further back from nearby West Street with its heavy truck traffic. (Can you say "truck bomb"?) Of course, I may have missed it, but what's the plan to prevent an explosion originating on one of the hundreds of trains that will be passing below the base of the tower? Is every train passenger and his or her backpack going to be searched? And what about a Stinger missile (widely available on the black market, I'm told) from across the river? Would you want to go to work in place people are scheming 24/7 to destroy?

Oh, but don't forget the bollards! The revised security plan after the scandal of 2005 included more bollards, a word I've come to admire for embodying itself somehow: Bollards are those fire-plug shaped heavy-metal stanchions placed at close intervals around security-conscious buildings to prevent a truck bomb from barreling through. Of course all those trucks making deliveries inside the building? The highly paid security guards who will check them out before letting them in the bowels of the tower only have to make one mistake ...

And then there was bold talk back then that the building security check-in would include as-yet-to-be-proven iris-scanning ID verification devices (when Condé Nast moves in will they offer eyeliner checks, too?). There will be dogs patrolling the perimeter and the pat-down is likely to exceed TSA-style obscenity.

And no worries about the air you breathe: Back then there was also talk of highly sensitive airborne biotoxin detectors so you'll know—after it's too late of course—if someone has infected the air you breathe with anthrax through the ventilating system. Very comforting.

But the pièce de résistance in this tale of folly was the reinforced base and the attempted prism-glass coverup. The NYPD counterterror people were adamant that the base of the building had to be encased in thick concrete for 185 feet up, or the first 20 stories, to protect against a bomb deposited at ground zero of Ground Zero.

But "Ugh," said the aesthetes designing the building. One hundred eighty-five feet of concrete. It would look like a "fortress," said one. "Forbidding," said another. Not exactly in tune with the delicate Condé Nast creative spirit. Actually, more like one of those supermax prisons that they keep psycho-killers in. Condé Nast on Shutter Island!

And so, back in 2006, they came up with this supergenius, highly artistic plan to cover up the supermax concrete and armor-plated fortress: They'd clad the concrete in "prism glass," a super-special reflecting glass, that would make everything look pretty in the sunlight. Designer sunglasses for the building!

Then, whoops, five years later, just last month, the site developers suddenly announced they were dropping the prism glass because the super special prism glass they'd already spent $6 million on "bowed and broke" on testing.

But better late than never, right? How's the testing on those air sensors going, guys? So Condé Nasties, you know your lives are in the hands of some very, very—what's the word?—slow thi nkers. Curious that the announcement about the glass came several days after the Condé Nast announcement—perhaps the slow, slow testing had not quite reached completion. We will test no glass before it's time. Goodbye, prism, hello again, supermax.

And, by the way, I don't think the matter is of more or special urgency just because it's Condé Nast. I'm speaking on behalf of everyone forced to work in this misbegotten building, because, in this economy, who has much of a choice if the boss says, "See you downtown"?

Why had I been on this "lonely crusade" against Freedom Tower folly for half a dozen years before Condé Nast entered the picture? I think it may be because my father was an office worker in the Empire State building when a fogbound plane—accidentally—crashed into it that I'm sensitized to the question.

It's true, though, I have a fondness for Condé Nast, having spent a decade or so riding the elevators to Vanity Fair, where I was a contributing editor, and Mademoiselle, where I was movie reviewer. I learned to treasure the complex and intoxicating mix of subtle fragrances that mingled in the elevator air. And to differentiate by subtle outfit cues, Vogue from Glamour and Glamour from Mademoiselle types. Condé Nast is a storied New York institution whose eccentric creative past is worth reading about—check out Mary Cantwell's memoir, Manhattan, When I Was Young.

I don't think anyone should be forced to work at the new Ground Zero on a daily basis but I would also add that Condé Nast in particular is a culture that would be more sensitive to daily apprehension of "Mumbai style attacks" than a worldwide shipping container corporation, say. (It's not that Condé Nast can't be tough minded, too. They could have unleashed a team of their best investigative reporters—The New Yorker, Wired—on the safety question before signing the deal. They still could. It's not too late. I'd trust these reporters over "security consultants.")

Still, Condé Nast people in general are sensitive enough already, it's their job to be sensitive. Sensitive to the tremors in the zeitgeist, to the length of a hem, the equipoise of a semicolon in Janet Malcolm's prose.

It's hard to be at your most antenna-of-the-species sensitive when dread of anthrax in the air-circulating system, or a bollard-evading bomb, is on your mind.

Nor am I saying that there's any place utterly safe from the threat of terrorism, in America, but you'd have to admit the Acme Widgets Company in Toledo (a name I made up) is less likely to be on the al-Qaida front burner.

True, even New York skyscrapers that are not making an in-your-face challenge to the most successful terrorist group in the world cannot be 100 percent safe. But why place your entire enterprise in most endangered skyscraper in the world? I have to believe there's more to this decision than we know. Could they be getting the space for next to nothing as a loss leader to attract companies who think: "Well, if Condé Nast is there it must be safe."

Maybe it's a kind of denialism at work. See—10 years later—we're all just Americans hard at work, the way we were the morning of 9/10/01. Like it never happened. But—I hate to be a downer—it did happen. To a building complex we were assured was oh-so-safe back then.

I've always felt that the most fitting response, one that would assure we never forget 9/11—the purpose of a memorial, right?—would be to have left the pit of destruction just as it was, a raw nightmare snapshot of what hatred does. Not business as usual.

Show the scar, the still-open wound. Don't try to cover it up with a pretty, prismy, 1776-foot-tall tower. That's not a victory for freedom. It's a victory for folly.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.