Wednesday, February 09, 2005

WTC Victims "not Innocent"? Daniel Libeskind Does not Disagree

Statements made by the University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 to the effect that the victims of the 9/11 attacks – and notably the financial services workers trapped in the World Trade Center – were not “innocent” have lately been attracting wide attention. More precisely, as implied by the title of his essay “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens”, Mr. Churchill suggested that the attacks on the WTC were a legitimate response to the injustices allegedly perpetrated by what he called “America's global financial empire – the ‘mighty engine of profit’ to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved.”

It might come as a surprise to some readers to learn that when expressing himself in the German-language media, Daniel Libeskind, the author of the so-called “master plan” for WTC reconstruction, has endorsed sentiments remarkably similar to those expressed by Ward Churchill.

Here is what Ward Churchill wrote in his September 2001 essay regarding whether the victims of the 9/11 attacks could be described as “innocent civilians”:

There is simply no argument to be made that the Pentagon personnel killed on September 11 fill that bill. The building and those inside comprised military targets, pure and simple. As to those in the World Trade Center . . .

Well, really. Let's get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire – the "mighty engine of profit" to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved – and they did so both willingly and knowingly. Recourse to "ignorance" – a derivative, after all, of the word "ignore" – counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in – and in many cases excelling at – it was because of their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants.

In April 2003, shortly after being designated the winner of the WTC design competition by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki, Daniel Libeskind gave an interview to Roman Hollenstein [link in German], architectural critic for the Swiss daily the Neue Züricher Zeitung. Here is an excerpt:

The World Trade Center that was destroyed in New York was the nodal point of the globalized financial world and as such certainly not a place of innocence. In your project, however, …you do not thematize this problematic side, but instead glorify the place with a “Park of Heroes”, a “Wedge of Light” and “Gardens of the World”.


In the reconstruction project, I try to master all the contradictions and the whole complexity of the place. As for the heroes that should be honored here, they were entirely ordinary people, like me. To prevent them from being instrumentalized by the fundamentalists of the extreme Right, one has to give them real importance.

Note that Libeskind does not contest Hollenstein’s remark that the WTC was “not a place of innocence”. On the contrary, he reacts defensively to Hollenstein’s claim that his project does not “thematize” the implied guilt, insisting that he tried to master “all the contradictions and the whole complexity” of the place and thus tacitly acknowledging the justness of Hollenstein’s assessment of the WTC. Given the context, moreover, the emphasis Libeskind places on the specific need to honor the WTC “heroes” - who were “entirely ordinary people” - seems to suggest that such less “ordinary” people as lost their lives in the attacks – the many corporate executives, for instance – may have received their just deserts. Though he would later (presumably on the urging of city and state officials) use the term in a more inclusive manner, in Libeskind’s original submission the “heroes” who are to be memorialized clearly refers just to the firemen, police and other rescue workers who rushed to the towers.

That Libeskind would display such contempt for the usual occupants of the WTC will not seem so astonishing for anyone familiar with some of his earliest public pronouncements in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and before he entered the WTC design competition. Thus in an interview published in the Suddeutsche Zeitung of June 26, 2002, Libeskind was reminded that he had said that after 9/11 “everything must change.” Further on in the interview, commenting on what the interviewer called a “longing for spirituality,” Libeskind provided a more precise idea of just why he might harbor such apocalyptic sentiments:

Materialist capitalist culture calls forth in human beings a demand for something different. The excesses of capitalism and globalization elicit a radical response. The spiritual is always tied to the political. It is always bound together with the emergence of totalitarian powers, which give the human soul the impulse to unveil itself and its forces.

Libeskind does not here say anything quite so obviously outrageous as Ward Churchill, who in his “Roosting Chickens” essay would go on to compare the financial services workers in the WTC to “little Eichmanns”. But note that he uses the expression “totalitarian” not, for instance, in connection with Islamism, an ideology whose totalizing pretensions could hardly be more explicit, but rather in connection with “materialist capitalist culture”: i.e. the very “materialist capitalist culture” that America is said to epitomize and of which New York’s World Trade Center was once the most visible icon – the very “materialist capitalist culture,” in short, that on 9/11 came under attack. Although the immediate context for the remark was “spirituality” in art, moreover, it should be noted that the interview closes with Libeskind enthusing over the prospect of his staging a series of operas by German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen: the same Karlheinz Stockhausen who famously pronounced the 9/11 attacks “the greatest work of art there has ever been.”

(Note: Libeskind is not wrong, by the way, to suggest that his contempt for the victims of the 9/11 attacks is evident in his WTC site design. I discuss the many manifestations of this contempt in my "The Future of Ground Zero".)