The View From 1776

Bureaucratic Roadblocks

Socialistic regulations designed to manage every moment of everybody’s work day have now killed two firemen in Manhattan.

Wall Street Journal editor and columnist Daniel Henninger blasts New York City bureaucrats for the years of bumbling that resulted in an unnecessary fire and the death of two firemen.  As the Journal website is a subscription-only one, I have reproduced Mr. Henninger’s column below.

The fire location was the Deutsche Bank building, which flanks the World Trade Towers site.

The Deutsche Bank building mess is a continuation of the obstructionism that characterizes New York State and New York City, two of the most socialistic administrations in the nation.

As I noted last March in World Trade Towers: a Socialist Fiasco, “We can count on government planners to produce the most inefficient projects conceivable by the human mind.? Manhattan?s Freedom Tower, intended to rise on the site of 9/11 destruction, is an egregious example.”

The original World Trade Towers project itself was initially a classic big-government bungle:

“... in its privately planned and financed development, Citibank announced its intentions and completed its new headquarters on Park Avenue within three years.? 399 Park Avenue opened for business in 1961.? An additional nine years would pass before the socialistically-planned UDC was able to complete the first WTC tower in 1970.”


We Have Met the Enemy, Again
?August 23, 2007;?Page?A10

Even in these times, an August dimmed with miners trapped in Utah and China, Mexico’s hurricane and the final body pulled from below the Minnesota bridge, the story of two New York firemen dying in a dead building was just too much.

Since September 11, when so many died across the street from the Deutsche Bank building in lower Manhattan, a great deal of effort has been made to ensure that no more people die in the U.S. from anything remotely connected to that day. Nearly six years after, we in New York have become used on any given morning to finding additional police on subway platforms (as yesterday) or seeing fleets of police cars in front of large commercial buildings. The purpose is to show presence, and deter terror.

So when it emerged that all the sirens one was hearing last Saturday afternoon in Manhattan were because the empty building known as 130 Liberty Street had caught fire, and that two firemen had died on the 14th floor when their bottled air ran out, one was dumbstruck. Then angry.

This building stands just outside The Journal’s downtown office. Many of us walk past it and Ground Zero twice a day. If you looked to one side, you were staring into vast slabs of concrete and construction in the famous pit. Look to the other side and you saw the dead, utterly useless DB building hung, seemingly forever, in black mesh. After awhile what you did on this little stretch of street is never look to the sides, just straight ahead. Because if you looked at the DB building, you’d have to think what it meant that after six years, this grim thing was still up.

Now that two men have died trying to put out a crummy fire, maybe the time has arrived to squarely face just what the appalling six-year presence of the Deutsche Bank building represents.

It’s about New York surely, but the inability to get this building down stands as a broader rebuke to a country that has become so comfortable with indulging its countless legal, personal, political and administrative obsessions that it cannot protect its own people by doing the obvious.

You surely recall what the 9/11 Commission said about the problems that led to that day, and before that the Bremer commission’s report on terrorism predicting that the U.S. was at risk for precisely the same reasons—an American system engulfed in proceduralism and legalism. And loving it. That’s right, loving it. Our public officials and the attendant factions and community groups are so far gone into their never-never lands of crossing “t’s” and dotting “i’s” that they barely know how to bring an issue to resolution. In their world, it’s never over. Process is life.

The road map to Saturday’s tragedy may be found on the Web site of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the page titled “The Deutsche Bank Building at 130 Liberty Street.” In a chronological listing of “public documents” from September 2004 to November 2005 are 19 dates inside of which are uncountable numbers of fact sheets on air monitoring, “supplemental investigations” of fireproofing, vertical shaft sampling, cell system sampling and requests for variance to the horizon. There is an Advisory Committee of four LMDC members, four politicians, 16 “community representatives” and nine federal, state and city agencies. They met a lot.

At the center of this 40-story-high tangle of fishing line one finds the hook on which the whole mess has been hanging for six years—“contaminants of potential concern” or COPCs. The most politically paralyzing COPC of all, needless to say, is asbestos.

Lest a fiber of asbestos float from the building and spread cancer panic across lower Manhattan’s streets, the one-floor-at-a-time demolition required an “abatement and removal” plan whose mind-boggling technical and physical details would fill half the first section of this newspaper (“All interior non-structural building materials will be removed under negative pressure . . .”).

Basically, men in space suits were scrubbing virtually every interior surface by hand and dismantling it by hand. Who could doubt that the human error rate would rise over time under such conditions, such as the steel beam that fell and penetrated the roof of the firehouse nearby? Or indeed this fire. Abandoned buildings full of the same materials are demolished faster all the time, but not this one. Instead of a demolition plan that struck a balance between controlling the toxicity and getting the job done, the process created what is virtually a hermetically sealed environment—to demolish 40 floors of junk. They’ve made the building so “safe” you can’t get it down. So after six years a fire erupted and two firemen caught in the “Matrix”-world of 130 Liberty St. died.

The details of this public-policy morass are no exception in the post-9/11 world. They are the norm. The hyper-complex requirements and mindset reflected in the public record over 130 Liberty St. mirror the endless debate and litigation we’ve also layered into efforts to surveil and prosecute terrorists.

Yes, partisanship plays its part, but intellectual hubris and self-regard plays a larger part. We’ve got a society that’s smarter than ever, but maybe too smart for its own good. Whether the problem before us is national security, the environment or protecting baby, we compulsively drive the system now to develop the most exquisite, complex procedures, which allow us to think ourselves both perfectly safe and ethically perfect.

Procedural perfectionism has been raised to religious status. Normal people now think like lawyers, bureaucrats and administrators, rather than as in the techworld, where the culture values fast mid-course corrections and can-do.

One may ask: The political and commercial forces that produced stasis for 130 Liberty St. may outwardly mourn the deaths. But would any of them pull back from their obsessions now to get the building down fast? I doubt it.

We have met the enemy, and he is still us.
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