The Taboos of 9/11




This article makes three major points:


  • I. The interpretation placed on the events of 9/11, and specifically its uses to ground a so-called “war on terror,” have been used to buttress conservative political power through restrictions on democracy;


  • II. Most major decisions about what to do to deal with the events of  9/11  have been made by, and in the interests of, a narrow segment of the population, those in positions of economic and political power


  • III. Those decisions were legitimated ideologically by a set of taboos that have restricted discussion to narrow issues having to do with secondary matters, leaving fundamental questions involving criteria of equity, social justice, and democracy off the agenda for public discourse and tabooed.


The conclusion is that a vigorous bout of critical theory and planning is today needed if such criteria are to be publicly debated and applied.


* * * * *

I.                   The Political Use of 9/11.


At the national level, the events of September 11 have been used to justify measures in the U.S. that were clearly part of a political agenda before that date: expanded power to the military, reduced spending on social welfare, restrictions on immigration, control over the press, limitations on protest. The tactic has, been very successful: political opposition from what is theoretically the oppositional party in congress has been virtually nullified,[1] the media is largely uncritical of measures justified as part of the war on terrorism, and public opinion polls show very large majorities supporting the administration’s policies.


In directly political terms, wide-spread curtailments of civil liberties has followed and been justified by September 11. The evidence is everywhere. David Corn summarizes it:


“… legislation has been passed and executive orders signed that establish secret military tribunals to try non-US citizens; impose guilt by association on immigrants; authorize the Attorney General to indefinitely lock up aliens on mere suspicion; expand the use of wiretaps and secret searches; allow the use of secret evidence in immigration proceedings that aliens cannot confront or rebut; destroy the secrecy of the client-lawyer relationship by allowing the government to listen in; and institutionalize racial and ethnic profiling.”[2]


In New York City, a 1985 consent decree that monitors police intelligence, the Handschu Agreement, named after a plaintiff in a 1971 suit that accused police of using intelligence and infiltration to chill and punish lawful dissent, requires the New York Police Department to get permission from a three-member panel to investigate political groups. Even then the police must show that any investigation relates to a crime. The City has fought the restrictions imposed by that decree with the contention that it inhibits the fight against terrorism. [3]


And not only in New York City:


William Pfaff, hardly a doctrinaire critic, says in the International Herald Tribune:


“This administration is making use of the September 11 tragedy to do what the neoconservative right has wanted for a long time, which is to renounce inconvenient treaties, junk arms control, build and test nuclear weapons, attack Saddam Hussein and abandon multilateralist cooperation with international organizations and compromise with allies, all in order to aggrandize American international power and deal expediently with those who challenge it.”[4]


He might only have added that it is not the power of the American people, but of those already in power in the United States, that is being aggrandized.


A glaring example of the use of September 11-justified “national security” to strengthen the hand of employers against workers came in the recent dockworkers’ strike in California. The government intervened to obtain an injunction against the strike. According to a reliable report,


“The administration’s legal brief before Judge Alsup voiced a startling new philosophy, elaborated by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield. He held that all commercial cargo could be considered important to the military, not just specifically goods intended for military use abroad. Any stoppage on the docks, therefore, was a threat to national security. The use of national security as a pretext for injunctions — and even militarizing the workplace and replacing strikers — could affect any union. Instead of defining a threat to national security in terms of vital life-dependent services, this use of national security defines it as economic. Any strike halting the continued operation of an industry or a large profitable enterprise could be defined as such a threat, and made illegal.”[5]


The shift in the way global power is exercised becomes noticeable. The exercise of military power by any one super-power had been restrained in the era of the Cold War, because of fear of retaliation in kind. That no longer exists, and the United States is increasingly willing to flex its military muscle around the world. Its claim to  hegemony is official and out in the open:


While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively against such terrorists, to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country…We must be prepared to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and our allies and friends.


This stance significantly reinforces the relationships that private economic power had already established; it reinforces the direction of really existing globalization. Thus the role of the state is measurably increased, leading to the ideological dilemmas mentioned above. Other states are similarly caught in a contradiction: they welcome the legitimacy given to them to suppress by force dissident movements within their own borders,[6] although they resent the unilateralism of the United States and its acknowledged superiority in actual military might. The justification lies in concern with “terrorist clients,” a clear reference to Al Queda, and the right to self defense against attacks such as those of 9/11.


The events of September 11 have thus been used as a smokescreen to cover policies serving the interests of those benefiting from globalization, whether at the local, the national, or the international, level, and concealing the extent to which the reality being pursued differs from its purported ideological rationale. At the local level, very visibly in New York City, they have permitted the already powerful forces of real estate and the global financial interests they see as their best market an almost untrammeled influence over the development of the city, accentuating a concentrated deconcentration and citadelization of business activities and furthering the segregation of the city.[7] At the national level, they have been used, under the banner of security from attack, to marshal support for a neo-liberal domestic agenda, restrict protest, and undercut opposition to it. Internationally, they have been used, under the banner of a coalition against terrorism, to consolidate the unilateral power of the U.S., revealing inadvertently the importance of military power and the nation-state in the maintenance of a global economy. In each case, the contrast between the ideology of really existing globalization and its reality is stark; the smokescreen developed around 9/11 cannot long cover the discrepancy. The skewed impact of really existing globalization has been strengthened by the ideological use of 9/11, and the task of opposition made more difficult, but also more necessary. It is a fact widely acknowledged, but its logical (or illogical) relationship to 9/11 is rarely reexamined.



II.               The Tabooed Question of Power


Who holds the decision-making power and processes involved in dealing with the aftermath of 9/11, and the distribution of benefits and costs they produce, are minimally discussed in the public discourse. It is as if the question of power were a taboo.


And yet who holds the power illuminates dramatically what has said and what has been done about 9/11 and its consequences. Even a brief examination of who the key actors were and are makes the point. .


The major institution to which the national and much of the state and local funding flowed was the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, established by the State of New York and the City of New York. Empowered to name its members were the governor  of the State, George Pataki, a conservative Republican businessman, and the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, a billionaires and one of the wealthiest persons in that city. It is the recipient of over $2,000,000,000 in governmental funding, the bulk of it through a Federal program, the Community Development Block Grant Program, It was the major governmental nstrumentality active in dealing with theimpact of 9/11, as defined by it;


The membership of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation reflects this. They were, in the words of Herbert Muschamp, architecture critic for the New York Times, “captains of industry, including top executives from financial services and communications companies and from public agencies for construction and economic development.” The chair of Community Board 1, the local planning body for the neighborhood in which the World Trade Center stood, is the local community’s representative. The president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York is labor’s. The Corporation was appointed by the governor (7 members, 4-year terms) and the Mayor, in this case the outgoing mayor (4 members, initially 1-year terms). The chair was former Governor Pataki’s designee, John C. Whitehead, former co-chairman and senior partner of Goldman Sachs. Whitehead served as the top deputy to former Secretary of State George Schultz and received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Reagan. He was also chairman of the Board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Since 1999, he donated $51,000 to the state Republican Committee and the maximum $30,700 to George Pataki..And of course Larry Silverstein, one of the largest developers in New York City, had a 99-year lease of the property on which the World Trade Center had stood and was involved in all of the negotiations as to its future.[8]


The firms that occupied the twin towers of the aptly named World Trade Center represented some of the cream of international finance and trade. They included Cantor Fitzgerald Securities, Verizon, New York Stock Exchange, Morgan Stanley, Keefe, Bruyette and Woods, Aon Corporation, Deutsche Bank, New York Board of Trade, Credit Suisse First  Boston, Salomon Smith Barney, Securities & Exchange Commission, and the United States Secret Service. Of those who died in the attack on 9/11, the large majority, 76 percent, were listed in the Special Master’s Final Report as “Finance / Banking / Insurance / Accounting.”[9]


And the these groups and individuals used their power and control in their self-interest, and at the expense of the less well off, reinforcing  New York City’s position as one of the most unequal cities in the developed world – and this despite, or perhaps rather because of, its wealth[10]


There was indeed extensive talk of citizen participation and democratic decision-making in the 10 years after 9/11, but the reality lagged far behind the rhetoric. The most egregious example is probably that of the meeting at the New York Convention Center, in which 5,000 or so people, sitting in front of computers reacting to reconstruction plans shown on a giant screen had their preferences tabulated and recorded. While the results may have had a slight influence, they probably more provided support for what the authorities already desired than produced any changes. And key questions, such as whether commercial should be the primary uses for the major new investment, were not put on the table.


A major upsurge of civic interest n what should be done at both ground zero and lower Manhattan in general followed 9/11. Civic organizations were formed, meetings held, the LMDC held hearings, civic groups lobbied, coalitions were formed, proposals were put forward. But in the end it was widely conceded that the governor and the mayor called the shots, with Larry Silverstein, holder of the lease to the World Trade Center, probably having more influence on the outcome than all civil groups combined.[11]

III.            The Tabooed Question of Benefit


Most immediately, 9/11  has been used directly to produce public actions favoring the wealthy over the poor, in cities to enhance the position of the citadel-dwellers rather than the ghettoized. Taking advantage of the general public concern for those damaged by the attack on the World Trade Center, they have moved to skew governmental actions further in their direction. At least $20 billion dollars – currently, $21.3 is the estimate – will be flowing to New York City in the near future, and its expenditure is an indicator of how far the power of government is going to reinforce the position of those already entrenched in positions of economic power. And they are very aware of the possibilities. In particular, real estate interests have been active ever since September 11, lobbying city officials, the state, and New York’s two Senators about how much money is needed and for what. Robert Kolker, in New York magazine, describes one such important meeting:


“Get the money now,” Bill Clinton is chanting into a microphone, sermonizing before a parish of pinstriped suits. “Get the money now.” [The meeting] is in Citigroup’s packed Park Avenue auditorium with some of the city’s top business leaders – megadeveloper Jerry Speyer, billionaire financier Henry Kravis, real estate baron and publisher Mort Zuckerman, AT&T chairman Mike Armstrong, Lehman Brothers chairman Dick Fuld. … Looking on from the audience like proud parents are Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, along with George Pataki’s economic czar, Charles Gargano, and union chieftains Brian McLaughlin and Randi Weingarten. “Get the money now,” Clinton repeats in his folksiest drawl. The terrorists aimed for the World Trade Center because they “think we’re weak and selfish and greedy,” he says, but that’s no reason not to fight hard for that money.


The meeting, hosted by the nation’s largest bank, seems to have been successful in its financial targeting. The latest distribution of funds, just announced as this is being written, by the city’s Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, was described as follows:


The state and city sent letters offering the first of dozens of multimillion-dollar federal grants to some of the most important financial companies in the world… candidates include the financial giants Merrill Lynch, American Express, Goldman Sachs and the Bank of New York; Aon, the insurance broker; and the law firms Thacher Proffitt & Wood and Pillsbury Winthrop.  [Doctoroff, the Deputy Mayor for Economic development] said the criteria used to award the grants included the ‘ number of employees and the likelihood that a company would relocate.  Mr. Doctoroff added that some benefit packages would go to companies “that never had any intent to leave.” Asked why, he said “first of all, everyone lies about it,” with companies threatening to leave even if they really would not go. Beyond that, he said, “it probably is appropriate for people who recommit to downtown to get some money.”[12]


By the same token, the governmental allocation of funds to those at the bottom end of the economic ladder will be severely curtailed. The holes in the safety net will be further enlarged, and the segregationist effect strengthened. The way in which September 11 should be dealt with provides some of the cover for this misallocation; the rest is attributed to the economic downturn. The result is that city-funded public education programs will be cut by $358 million, parks by $16.6 million, libraries by $39.3 million, children’s services, including child care and foster care, by $128 million, the Empowerment Zone budget (for business development in Harlem and the Bronx) by $3.1 million, economic development outside lower Manhattan, in the capital plan, is cut $204 million, while $252 million is retained for the expansion of the stock exchange, although it itself has shelved the plans for a new building. On the other hand, $18.1 million is cut from the Department of Cultural Affairs, although most of those involved see cultural activities as necessary for a lower Manhattan revival. The pre-existing demand for housing was estimated by housing advocates to be $10 billion, and their call was for $1 a year,[13] a call largely supported by the candidates for mayor before September 11. Now, however, the city budget cuts $418 million in capital expenditures for housing over four years, and cuts entirely a number of housing preservation program.[14]


Putting all these budgetary developments together, combined with the increased ascendance of both the ideology and the reality of the market, the segregationist and exclusionary effects of really existing globalization will be strengthened, and the need to deal with September 11 will be used as part of the political cover.


There is an underlying problem here: how have those in power been able to maintain that power, and achieve these results to their benefit and to the detriment of the large majority of the rest of the population, while maintaining the formal structures of a democratic government, with the apparent support of a true majority of at least the those eligible to vote, maintaining their support against their own interests?


The answer, I believe,  is a political, an ideological, a psychological, one. What is not considered is, I would argue, a matter of a set of taboos, taboos that are neither accidental nor deliberately put in place, but that serve existing relationships of power, and because they do so so well, become almost universally accepted and promulgated, as much unknowingly as knowingly, as much implicitly as explicitly.

Click to access APRIL30thDRGR.pdf


IV.             The Range of Legitimating Taboos


Beyond the fundamental taboo blocking examination of who is making decisions, and in whose interests, lie a series of more ideological taboos that undergird the big ones. After dealing with the taboos on questions of power, and the taboo in the distribution of benefits, there are a number of further tabooed questions that legitimate the uses of power and the distribution of benefits that may be isolated. Key ones can be listed:


What were the Causes of the attack. What actually led to the attack on these buildings at this site? After President Bush declared, authoritatively, that the attack was an attack on “freedom” by “terrorists,” further inquiry was essentially tabooed.


What purposes should reconstruction at the World Trade Center site serve? What should be built on its site? After an agreement that there should be a fitting memorial and that new construction should replicate or even expand the uses that were destroyed, further debate as to more than details was essentially tabooed.,


How should victims be compensated? How should the survivors, and the families of those killed, be treated? After the initial agreement on a full compensation of the victims and their families, debate beyond procedures for “full compensation” was essentially tabooed.


What use is “Homeland Security?” To what extent will the measures for “homeland security” actually provide security against further similar attacks? After the initial declaration of the “War on Terrorism,” debate on the appropriateness of that concept, or the measures of “Homeland Security” that were adopted in its name, was essentially tabooed.


And these taboos are not accidental. The hypothesis here is:


Each of these taboos is part of the ongoing use of 9/11 and the “War on Terror” declared in its name, to buttress the established order and repress thorough-going critical comment on prevailing relations of economic and political power.  


A.                 Causes of the attack.


What actually led to the attack on these buildings at this site, and what forces were responsible for it? After President Bush declared, authoritatively, that the attack was an attack on “freedom,’ further inquiry was essentially tabooed. But examine his logic carefully.


Tonight we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom…. On September the 11th, enemies of freedom commit All of this was brought upon us in a single day — and night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself is under attack.ted an act of war against our country. … Americans are asking, why do they hate us? They hate what they see right here in this chamber — a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms — our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other. They want to overthrow existing governments in many Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.  existing ..And what is at stake is not just America’s freedom. This is the world’s fight. This is civilization’s fight……  The advance of human freedom — the great achievement of our time, and the great hope of every time — now depends on us I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people.… All of this was brought upon us in a single day — and night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself is under attack….[15]


And  when the invasion of Afghanistan was announced a month later:


The name of today’s military operation is Enduring Freedom. We defend not only our precious freedoms, but also the freedom of people everywhere to live and raise their children free from fear.[16]



The language equates “freedom” with the United States. The United States becomes the embodiment of freedom, it is “our freedoms” that are attacked, overthrowing existing governments in Egypt  is an attack on freedom, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon embody freedom, “our” freedoms” equal civilization, it is the U.S.’s duty to defend, our fight is the world’s fight. The rhetoric is overwhelming.


But it is unrelated to reality. The World Trade Center was a world trade center, it harbored banks from around the world, global financial firms, speculators in environmental credits, international law firms.[17]  The pentagon is the headquarters of the mightiest military machine in the world, not the seat of a democratic government. It should not be tabooed to point out that the targets of the attack on 9/11 were a clear symbols of United States economic and military power, not symbols of freedom, in the United States or internationally, but, if anything, a symbol of American military and economic power. It requires little tinkg to figure out what would have been the symbol of “American freedom” recognized by the most people around the world: The Statue of Liberty. It was as vulnerable to attack as the twin towers, but it was the twin towers of the World Trade Center that were chosen.


The point is not a quibble about a thoughtless turn of phrase uttered under pressure in a moment of emotional heat, but rather underlies a critical thread in the events of the ten years following 9/11. It essentially foreclosed discussion of what actually lay behind the attacks of 9/11, preempted any reconsideration of international relations, of the view held by millions of the nature and effects of the United States’ economic actions and policies, private and public. It served to legitimate the invasion of two foreign countries, billions of dollars in military expenditures, thousands of deaths. It essentially ruled out of any real possibility of open consideration wide range of alternative reaction to the attacks of 9/11.


The same can be said about the rhetorical us of the phrase “war on terrorism.”[18] The language of war immediately calls up commitments to patriotism, in which criticism can only help the enemy, in which unity behind the leader is a matter o national survival. Likening the “war on terror” to World War III[19] strengthens the implications, recalling the unity of the country in World War II. It justified the invasion of Afghanistan immediately after 9/11, and helped provide the rationale for the Congressional Resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq two years later.[20]


“War on…” is of course a phrase used colloquially as shorthand simply to indicate a campaign, or program, directed at a given practice: thus “war on poverty,” or “war on drugs.” But in those cases “war” is meant purely symbolically; no tanks or bombs are involved, it is not a matter of national security, it raises no question of international relations. The “war on terror” is different; as Bush’s passing invocation of World War III sows, it is means in fact to call up all of the strategies and tactics, all of the forces and passions, that a real war requires. But a war is between nations, between armies. Terror is a tactic; it may in fact be used a war, but it is not an enemy, but an instrument that an enemy might use. We do not declare war on poison gas, except conceivably and awkwardly symbolically. But the War on Terror means military business, means a state of war with enemy combatants distinguished from civilians, with emergency state powers brought into play, in the present case with the establishment of a Department of Homeland Security, for the “homeland” is threatened, far beyond what a specific disaster produces. We do not declare war on hurricanes or floods, no matter what human developers’ land uses produce or exacerbate their lethal effects.


Again, the issue is not a quibble about the use of words. The language and baggage of the War on Terror proclaimed after 9/11 is used, day in and day out, to cast a pall of insecurity over the country, to get people to “watch their language,” in      words of    , to restrict access to public buildings, to control political activities in public spaces, to restrict demonstrations, as at the Republican National Convention in New York City in 2004?., to restrict immigration and deport residents, to incarcerate prisoners without normal rights of due process., to inform everyone that “if you see something, do something,” something, anything, out of the ordinary, of course particularly suspicious if related to someone different, something out of the ordinary. The documentation on the chilling effect on civil liberties of the security measures undertaken in the name of the War on Terror is extensive; the very language of war undergirds it.


But questioning the appropriateness of a war to deal with the causes of 9/11 is essentially taboo.


B.                 What Purposes Should Reconstruction Serve?


What should replace the World Trade Center? What should be built at the site of the buildings destroyed or damaged on 9/11? After an agreement that there should be a fitting memorial and that new construction should replicate or even expand the uses that were destroyed, further debate as to more than details was essentially tabooed.,


There has been a great deal of public discussion on this question, with many aspects reinforcing democratic decision-making processes as to land use and planning, aspects to which we will return. But on a central point there s a taboo, connected to the issues of freedom and the war on terror discussed above. The symbolism of the World Trade Center as a symbol of freedom in fact has created a major and self-contradictory situation, repressed in almost all public discussions.


The history of the so-called Freedom Tower makes the point. At first, there seemed to be a wide consensus that part of the response to 9/11 should be to rebuild, not in the same form it had been, and with no clear consensus on with what, but as a demonstration that the attack had not been able to destroy that which had been attacked. When Daniel Libeskind, in the winning plan for the over-all site, suggested a “Freedom Tower,” 1776 feet tall, to reflect the year the new United States was established, with a form vaguely related to that of the Statue of Liberty, the symbolism of freedom seemed to be well reflected in the proposal.


But events impinged on the design. First, it seemed unlikely that it would be commercially feasible; the market for downtown office space was weak, even given the losses of 9/11, the costs were high, and design needed to be reconfigured to make it financially feasible. The answer was essentially public subsidy: the agreement of the state of New York and the city of New York to move significant public agencies into the expensive space.


And the police department reviewed the plans, and held the building vulnerable to a terrorist bomb attack at ground level. It was not satisfied till a revised plan provided that the bottom twenty stories should be windowless and of thick reinforced concrete. Skidmore Owings Merrill, a pre-eminent global architectural firm specializing in major commercial developments, was called in develop a new plan. The result is shown below, next to the original Libeskind design. Protest at the bunker-like character of the twenty-store concrete base was widespread; SOM’s solution was to cover it with prismatic reflective glass. The result would have been an unusual false façade concealing a fortified base, but was accepted. Because of difficulties manufacturing the glass, that solution has been abandoned, and the final covering, as of the time of this writing, has not been decided on. The net result is a tower whose intended physical evocation of freedom was essentially lost; it remained simply as a very high building on the New York skyline. Even the 1776 height was only achieved by the addition of an antenna of 408 feet on a 1,368 foot high building.


The importance of the role of the “attack on freedom” argument in real life  can be seen in an incident in 2009.


Freedom is so passe at Ground Zero. Once hailed as a beacon of rebirth in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the Freedom Tower’s patriotic name has been swapped out for the more marketable One World Trade Center, officials at the Port Authority conceded today.


But more than seven years after the terror attacks and amid an effort to market the iconic tower to international tenants, sentiment gave way to practicality.

“As we market the building, we will ensure that the building is presented in the best possible way,” said Port Authority Chairman Anthony Coscia. [21]


When “freedom” gets in the way of the market, better to stop talking about it, particularly if the tenants are international firms who may have a different idea of what freedom is.


Yet 9/11 justifies large governmental subsidies that might run into severe criticismfor whom they favor under other circumstances. The first tenant to sign a major lease at the world trade center, for instance, was Vantone Industrial Co., Ltd., a Chinese real estate investment company, who will occupy the 64th through 69 stories of One World Trade Center.
The Center will serve as a hub for Chinese companies establishing operations in the United States, as well as U.S. companies seeking to expand into China. Businesses that choose to locate in the China Center will receive assistance in relocation, real estate, finance and investor relations.

China Center is receiving $3 million in funding from The New York City Investment Fund, the Partnership of New York City’s economic development branch.China Center has also applied for the Empire State Development Corp.’s World Trade Center Rent Reduction Program. If approved, the venture would receive a $5 per square foot rent credit for the next 15 years.[22]




The State of New York has agreed to a 15-year lease of 415,000 square feet (38,600 m2) of space inside 1 WTC, with an option to extend the term of the lease and occupy up to 1,000,000 square feet (90,000 m2).[44] The General Services Administration (GSA) has agreed to lease approximately 645,000 square feet (59,900 m2) of space,[28][44] New York State’s Office of General Services (OGS) plans to lease approximately 412,000 square feet (38,300 m2) of space.[23]


The desirability of such substantive subsidies, at taxpayers’ expense, was, to my knowledge, never even questioned in the course of the discussions. The core assumption that that commercial skyscrapers should occupy the edge of the site on thee sides was never seriously called into question.


Nor was the over-all exemption of planning for the site subjected to the usual requirements of the city’s land use planning and review process. Whether Lower Manhattan should be the favored locus for city investments and expedited planning support is virtually a tabooed question in the city. Whether other parts of the city, other priorities for education, health care, job creation, transportation, should be considered when decisions as to the future of lower Manhattan, and particularly the area directly impacted by the attacks of 9/11,[24] is not a subject of meaningful public discussion.[25]


C.                  How should victims be compensated?


How should the survivors, and the families of those killed, be treated? After the initial agreement on a full compensation of the victims and their families, debate on what that meant, and why? was essentially tabooed. There have in fact been debates on how the process should be handled, what role the courts should be allowed to play, whether effects surfacing years after 9/11 should be covered, exactly what losses should be compensated, but no debates on whether the government should be responsible for the compensation of the victims of this particular disaster, or why loss of income should be the key measure of compensation.


These are indeed ticklish questions. Look at the figures, and contrast them with the treatment of survivors and those injured in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. There is a question here that deserves consideration. I have recounted the facts elsewhere:[26]After 9/11, a Victims Compensation Fund was established by Congress. the families of those killed in New York received a total of $7.04 billion, with an average award of over $2,080.000 million and a top award of $7,100,000 million and a minimum award of $250,000. The average award for those injured was nearly $400,000. Hurricane Katrina and consequent flooding cost the lives of probably more than half as many as did the attack on the World Trade Center, and thousands ore lost their home and jobs in Louisiana from the same disaster. Yet federal funds covered actual funeral costs and little else for those killed, and help on housing was in the opinion of most niggardly, likely substantially less than those whose housing was damages and rendered temporarily unoccupiable after 9/11.


But, understandably, despite the disparity,  no one wants to be in the position of questioning whether families one of whose members has been killed or grievously injured in the disaster that was the attack of 9/11, for which they had no responsibility and which they could not have avoided, received too much. Yet the principles on the basis of which losses from disasters are compensated and victims compensated does seem to raise some important questions. Even the aster who was appointed to administer the 9/11 Fund raised the question:


Although the Congress and the Administration might consider the structure of

some type of future compensation program and debate the alternatives, it is

unlikely that such a statute would be established at the present time… The September

11th Victim Compensation Fund was a unique response to an unprecedented

historical event… the profound conditions which existed immediately

after the September 11th attacks. It was precisely these conditions, and the national

sense of grief and compassion associated with September 11, that led to

the enactment of the Fund. To expect that this would or should be done outside

of such a context is probably incorrect.[27]


And the same Master, attorney Kenneth Feinberg, wondered publicly several

years later why no claim was made for a similar fund in New Orleans after



The legal rationale for the measure used in the case of the 9/11 fund is clear: it is the amount which the victim might have received had they brought a civil action against the airlines for failure to adequately prevent the attack. The argument was primarily that it would have bankrupted the airplanes had they been forced to pay the amounts that might have been awarded. In such actions, the standard used is loss of earnings of those deceased and pain and suffering to their survivors. The World Trade Center victims included disproportionately high earners; by contrast, the Katrina victims were disproportionately low income.[29]


Whether that standard is a fair one may be debated, although it has long been established in the common law. But we are dealing here, not with a judicial proceeding, but a legislative decision. There is a tendency in the literature and debates on disaster recovery to treat all disasters as equal, and perhaps a debate on the equity of the payment of compensation by government would have broad implications in situations other than terrorist attacks, as Feinberg hinted. But the fact that 9/11 was a terrorist attack seems to have insulated it from any questions about the fairness of compensation. Should there have been equitable ceilings on amounts paid? Should the victims of all disasters be treated similarly? Should they all benefit from minimum awards? Should disasters be differentiated by cause, and those caused by terrorists be put in a preferred category? If so, why?


Such questioned seem  to have been taboo in the case of 9/11.


D.                What use is “Homeland Security?”


To what extent will the measures for “homeland security” actually provide security against further similar attacks? After the initial declaration of the “War on Terrorism,” debate on the appropriateness of that concept, or the measures of “Homeland Security” that were adopted in its name,[30] was essentially tabooed.


A heightened level of  security precautions was no doubt inevitable after 911, and in any event widely accepted Some use of metal detectors, baggage inspections, bollards to control vehicle access, reinforcement of construction, particularly of high-rises, was to be expected. The nature and extent of some of these reactions can certainly be questioned: aas we have seen above, putting  a 20-story base of concrete on the largest tower to be built on the World Trade Center site, windowless, set back 40 feet from the nearest street, bunkered against explosive attack, providing “a level of bomb blast mitigation consistent with the N.Y.P.D.’s report on the Freedom Tower and adequate to the threat” described in federal safety guidelines”[31]. , the extent of parking restrictions, security in all sorts of commercial buildings, etc., all these may be questioned as more than adequate to meet the threat of terrorism. What may not be questioned is the existence of such a threat of any serous magnitude whatsoever..


It is hard to see how many measures taken in the name of security are rational.[32] Perhaps indicative of this problem is the decision, some ten years after the event, of dropping the color-coding of “states of alert” in favor of  just two: “elevated” and “imminent.” [33]    , wand even those may seem rather pointless. But the concern here is with a greater negative than simply the waste and perhaps needless apprehensions that such irrational measures may cause. For the magnification of the threat of terrorism using 9/11 as its foundation justifies a level of surveillance, of police control, of restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, that serve to stifle many forms of legitimate protest and opposition that pose no threat to security at all, but support unwanted criticism of the powers that be. Examples abound: the restrictions imposed on protests at the Republican National convention, of protests in Washington, D.C., no loitering signs in public spaces, limitations on entry to public buildings, are classic examples.


And they are not accidental. Overcoming the taboo on the meaning of secrity would help explain much of that is recounted above that seems so ineffective. For it is a pattern in which the creation of a visible and emotional and obvious enemy and danger can divert attention from fundamental processes and relationships and institutional structures that do indeed create insecurity, and by that diversion reinforce those processes and relationships and structures.[34]

V.                The Void Created by these Taboos, and the Need for Critical Theory

A.                 The Mainstream Social Science Approach


The tabooed questions raised in this paper have not been confronted head-on in the mainstream of discussions. The events of September 9, 2001 and what followed have had multiple impacts, and volumes have been written about them. But the range of the discussion has been narrowly limited, important actors and their influence has been neglected, examination of underling issues has been tabooed, all in ways that, knowingly or not, serve to buttress the existing status quo and its existing relations of power.. The very language of most studies reflects the taboos.


The fundamental question of who is producing the impacts studied when the aftermath of “9/11” is being examined is rarely even asked. The categories used in most discussions, the very opening phrases used, are revealing. The Russell Sage Foundation sponsored a large study, reported on in three volumes, one on “the politics of recovery,” one on “the impact of September 11 on the city’s economy”,” and one that “digs below the aggregate outcomes revealed by economic statistics to look at vulnerable neighborhoods and groups of workers.”[35] And what happened in the city’s economy is at best a complex and strongly mediated one, mediated by existing social, economic, and political relationships, prominently including relationships of power, and the way in which those in power made use of the events of 9/11 to serve their own purposes. Even in the chapter on politics, entitled “How 9/11 Reshaped the Political Environment in New York,,” has 9/11 as if it were an actor, a driving force, dictating what should be done in its aftermath. In the words of the staid 3-volume study of the respected Russell Sage Foundation in New York City:


The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon created a disequilibrium in the politics of the city, state, and nation. These altered environments favored some candidate and worked against others.[36]


The study goes on to describe in the same chapter and in perceptive detail how the key actors, the Governor and the Mayor of the city, used the attack of the World Trade Center towers for their own political purposes, The actors involved are named, and their actions traced, the connection or lack of connection with the attack exposed. Yet, following the common practice questioned here, the cause-effect links are blurred: the attacks create a disequilibrium which in turn favors some and not others. What follows in the chapter is precise in naming how what actors made what use of the attacks for their own purposes. Al Qaeda’s actions do not explain Governor Patacki’s reelection in 2002; Patacki’s own actions, the uses made of the memory of the attack, do explain them.[37]


This absence of clear distinction between the effects of the attacks of 9/11 as such on the one hand and, on the other, the reactions to those attacks by different groups and individuals, is a major omission in the major studies. The even more voluminous 6-volume collection edited by Matthew Morgan has the same weakness. The series is called The Day that Changed Everything.[38] The actors disappear; it is “the day” that changed everything The criticism is a little unfair; the formulation is of course understood colloquially as meaning “what happened that day.” But the real problem remains: it is what that day, which includes the attack on the twin towers, the deaths, the rescues, the physical damage, the immediate responses, does not include. For the “impacts” that are studied are not simply the results of what happened that day; they are decisively influenced by the varied actions of those, both in power and out, reacting in different ways, for different purposes, with different ideologies, in different relationships to positions of power.  But these questions, and specifically the tabooed questions raised here, are avoided in the mainstream


What is it that has lead mainstream social science to ignore such a vital distinction? It is not inadequate attention to the methods of accepted social science, nor ignorance or incompetence. The studies cited, and many others dealing with 9/11, have been undertaken by leaders in the field; they are mostly competently executed according to the best of prevailing research methodology, their authors are sensitive and sophisticated and knowledgeable. I believe the difficulty lies elsewhere: in the absence of a critical theory underlying the approach to the research.

B.                 The Need for Critical Theory


What the taboos discussed in this paper do is remove the questions that are tabooed from the agenda of mainstream social science, and from the dominant political discourse which basically sets the agenda for that research. Thus, the attention of researchers, academics, experts, talking heads, students, is not caught. If good social science methodology might lead someone to open the door to exploring these tabooed questions, they would find no resonance in academia or the public, no incentive to pursue them; they do not figure in the list of cutting edge questions which gain publicity, reputation, position, in the world of social analysis. It takes at least the critical imagination that C.  Wright Mills called for[39] to bring the tabooed questions to public attention.


But it is precisely critical theory that would bring up these questions, for it begins with an analysis of social dynamics that would start with such questions as necessary foundational questions, that would frame an opening hypothesis for investigation in terms that would mandate a focus on them as a logical stating point for inquiry and debate. That opening hypothesis might read as follows:


Is the otherwise inexplicable inattention to certain questions as to the post-attack uses of 9/11, and the “War on Terror” declared in its name, explained by taboos developed to buttress the established order and repress what might become thorough-going critical comment on prevailing relations of economic and political power.


Mainstream social science theory does not see its work in such a context. It begins with a variety of fundamental assumptions about what dictates human behavior and the functioning of societies: rational individuals making reasoned decisions, perhaps based on their individual views of their own self-interest, or as culturally conditioned, or as path determined, etc., and sees research and analysis as an independent effort at understanding of current events. Critical theory, on the other hand, starts with philosophy of history that sees socially and economically and culturally determined class interests, and the conflict among such interests, as a motor of events, and sees social science theories and explanations as conditioned by their position in the play of those interests. These are of course vastly over-simplified formulations of both the mainstream and the critical approaches, but I believe they help clarify the main point here: that the taboos discussed in this paper are not pursued, are tabooed, by dint of simply not being raised in public discourse, and thus not pursued, and it takes a dissenting and critical theory to even raise the questions and penetrate the taboo of uninterested silence wit which the taboos shroud them.



It then takes the framework and the tools of critical theory to break the taboo on open discussion of their political role, to look ate structural social, economic, and cultural forces that haves propagated them, and to see what the results of a critical examination of their substance would produce. [40]


The taboos discussed here, then, should be seen as part of an ideological campaign to win wide popular support for measures that, without it, would meet with wide popular resistance and are against the interests of a majority of the population. To overcome them requires precisely an analysis that begins by asking about the relationship of ideological interpretations, or ideological taboos, to real interests and real actors. Grappling with the questions posed here is itself a political discussion of 9/11, and is, I believe,  a discussion that needs to be extended and deepened and widened. In each case, if the taboo is overcome and the discussion opened, the answers are not easy. What were the underlying causes of the attack of 9/11; why do they hate us so? What should be built at the World Trade Center site, what buildings, for what purposes, how designed, symbolizing what? How can victims be fairly compensated, how can a human life be measured, what role should economic circumstances play? How much physical security is useful, how can it best be put in place, what risks need to accepted and what must be prevented at all costs. What is the line between misuse of the memory of 9/11 and necessary analysis of what happened?


These are all critically important questions, and difficult ones. But they will never be found unless the taboos described in this article are overcome. And the tools of critical theory, which focuses exactly on the relationship the way in which the ideas that become part of the prevailing ideological apparatus are linked to the prevailing relationships of power at each historical period – and how other, countervailing ideas, are effectually excluded, tabooed – those tools of critical theory can be of major help on the issues.


One thing is certain: when the taboos are brushed aside, a key goal should be to see to it that  major decisions about what to do, in dealing with the events of  that day, are not  made by and in the interests of a narrow segment of the population, grossly disproportionate in wealthy and in power, and to their own benefit, unlike what has happened in the ten years. following 9/11/2001.

[1] As this is written, the attempt of a iconoclastic Republican Senator, Rand Paul, to even have debate on the provisions of the Homeland Security Act has been energetically and almost completely blocked in the United States Senate, The New York Times, May 28, 2011, p. 1..

[2] The Nation January 10, 2002,

[3], Julia Vitullo-Martin, “Police Spying.” January 2003.

[4] March 15, 2002, p. 6. What Pfaff says critically, others are beginning to say approvingly; thus the editorial features editor of the Wall Street Journal quotes the title of Patrick Buchanan’s “America, A Republic, not an Empire,” and says he has it exactly backwards. In Warrior Politics: Wjy Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos, (Random House, 2001), Robert D. Kaplan argues, approvingly, that the United States is carrying on a tradition of empire dating back to Rome, but more widely and more effectively—and that’s a good thing. See  Emily Eakin, “All Roads Lead to D.C.,” The New York Times, News of the Week in Review, March 31, 2002, p. 4.

[5]“ West Coast Dockworkers: Victory in the Face of the Bush Doctrine: Union Compares Negotiations to a “Barbed Wire Straight Jacket””

By David Bacon Special to Corpwatch January 2, 2003

[6] The Russian labeling of the war in Chechnya as a war against terrorism is a classic example.

[7] For more detailed discussion of way the political use of 911 had impacted planning and urban development in New York City, see Marcuse, Peter. 2009. “Urban Planning in New York City.” In Matthew J. Morgan, ed. The Impact of 9/11 on Politics and War. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 75-86 and Marcuse Peter. 2004. “The “War on Terrorism” and Life in Cities after September 11, 2001 “ in Stephen Graham, ed., Cities, War and Terrorism: Towards an Urban Geopolitics

[8] Further details, and sources, may be found in Peter Marcuse, 2011. “Ignoring Justice In Disaster Planning: An Agenda For Research On 9/11, Katrina, And Social Policy,” in Merlin Chowkwanyun and Randa Serhan, eds., American Democracy and the Pursuit of Equality: Essays in Honor of Herbert J. Gans (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2011).

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Harloe and Fainstein, New York and London Fainstein, Susan S., Ian Gordon, and Michael Harloe, eds. 1992.  Divided Cities: New York and London in the Contemporary World. Blackwell, Oxford.

[11] The earliest and most extensive efforts at having civic opinion influence the course of events are recounted in detail in the third volume of the Russell Sage stiudy described below, in Mollenkopf, John, ed., 1983. The Contested City. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[12] Charles V. Bagli, “Wall St. Giants Offered Grants for Staying Put,” The New York Times March 21, 2002

[14] These figures come from the Independent Budget Office’s Analysis, March 2002, available on its web site at For a recent complete listing of the LMDC’s expenditures, see

[15] George W. Bush, Address to a Joint Session of Congress Following 9/11 Attacks delivered 20 September 200, available at

[16] President Bush Launches Attack on Afghanistan,  Speech to the Nation on Oct. 7, 2001

,available at

[17] The details are provided in Marcuse, “Ignoring Justice In Disaster Planning: An Agenda For Research On 9/11, Katrina, And Social Policy,” in Merlin Chowkwanyun, which contains a listing of the tenants of the World Trade Center on 9/11. To be clear, I do not mean to denigrate the pain and suffering of the individuals working for these firms, nor to impugn their individual roles as employees or contractors in a role that structurally  has no necessary supportive relationship to “freedom.” My point is only that to claim that their role represented any aspect of  freedom other than the freedom of the market is grossly misleading.

[18] It was first used by President Bush in announcing the attack on Afghanistan. “This military action is a part of our campaign against terrorism, another front in a war that has already been joined,” he said. Op. cit.

[19] “Bush likens ‘war on terror’ to WWIII,” ABC News on line, April 6, 2006. Available at

[20] The resolution speaks of that attack as one on “a regime that developed and used weapons of mass destruction, that harbored and supported terrorists, committed outrageous human rights abuses, and defied the just demands of the United Nations and the world”.[

[24] For a discussion of the definition of this area, and its differential impact on different population groups in the city, see Marcuse, Peter.  2005. “Study Areas, Sites, and the Geographic Approach to Public Action.” 2005. in Carol J. Burns and Andrea Kahn, Site Matters: Design Concepts, Histories, and Strategies. New York: Routledge, pp. 249-280.

[25] For a detailed discussion of the ways in which planning after 9/11 has by-passed good planning practice in new York, see Marcuse, Peter. 2009. “Urban Planning in New York City.” In Matthew J. Morgan, ed. The Impact of 9/11 on Politics and War. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 75-86

[26] Peter Marcuse, 2011. “Ignoring Justice In Disaster Planning: An Agenda For Research On 9/11, Katrina, And Social Policy,” in Merlin Chowkwanyun and Randa Serhan, eds., American Democracy and the Pursuit of Equality: Essays in Honor of Herbert J. Gans (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2011).

[27] See Feinberg, “Final Report of the Special Master for the September 11th Victim

Compensation Fund of 2001,” 79, 83, especially discussion in which the rationale that the

Fund was established in this case because the loss came from terrorism is explicitly disowned.

Kenneth Feinberg, Columbia University School of Law talk, April 2007.

[28] Kenneth Feinberg, Columbia University School of Law talk, April 2007.

[29] They were also disproportionately African American and women (Marcuse, op cit.), but that did not figure in the rationale for calculating compensation, although it undoubtedly had an influence on the political leverage that was in play.

[30] The key legislation was The Homeland Security Act (HSA) of 2002, (Pub.L. 107-296, 116 Stat. 745, enacted November 25, 2002), 116 Stat. 2135

[31] David W. Dunlap and Glenn Collins, “Redesign Puts Freedom Tower on a Fortified Base”, New York Times, June 20, 2005, available at

[32] I have explored some cases in detail in Peter Marcuse “The ‘Threat of Terrorism’ and the Right to the City,” Fordham Urban Law Journal, 2005. vol. XXXII, pp. 767-785.

[33] The system had been: Severe (red): severe risk (used only once); High (orange): high risk (used six times); Elevated (yellow) (used seven times): significant risk; Guarded (blue) (never used);general ris;Low (green): low risk (never used). Its history is described in Its replacement uses only two categories: “elevated” and “imminesnt.” ttp://

[34] The argument is spelled out as part of an attempt to understand the support for the tea parties in the United States in Peter Marcuse, 2010. “The Need for Critical Theory in Everyday Life: Why the Tea Parties Have Popular Support.” CITY, vol. 14, No. 4, pp. 355-370, August

[35] The Contentious City, pp. ix,x.

[36] The Contentious City, op. cit., P. 205

[37] Ibid, p. 204-5.

[38] The Day That Changed Everything? Edited by Matthew J. Morgan. A six-volume, edited, interdisciplinary series on the impact of 9/11 – Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009  The titles of the separate volumes are:Politics and War, The New Legal Landscape, Business and Economics, the Media, Arts and Entertainment, Psychology and Education, Religion and Philosophy

[40] The theoretical setting for such an effort might well be that provided in the discussions of critical theory in Cities for People, not for Profit, a special issue of CITY and the subject of a forthcoming book with that title edited by Neil Brenner, Peter Marcuse, and Margit Mayer, Routledge, forthcoming fall 2011.