Ground Zilch: How Al-Qaeda Defeated New York; America's Enemies Must Be Laughing. Four Years after 9/11, the Failed Ground Zero Project Exposes the United States at Its Most Politically Inept, Cripplingly Litigious and Corrupt

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A full four years after suicide bombers felled the World Trade Center, the site on which the mighty twin pillars of New York's Financial District once stood remains a vast, empty hole. The grand plans to build a sparkling edifice to demonstrate to the enemies of the United States that no force on earth can stifle the power of business in America have come to nothing.

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A year ago, amid great pomp and patriotic fervour, George Pataki, governor of the state of New York, laid a black marble cornerstone to mark the start of the replacement "Freedom Tower", declaring it would be ready for occupation by September 2006. Still no date has been set for construction to begin. The giant chasm, three city blocks long, two blocks wide and six storeys deep, has become a morbid curiosity for tourists, who peer into the void as if it were the Grand Canyon, and for naturalists, eager to log the squatting species of flowers, plants and wild animals that have become the only occupants of Ground Zero.

Osama Bin Laden intended his assault on the twin towers to strike at the heart of materialism and cause consternation throughout the western world. What he could not have expected, however, was America's failure to rebuild the towers without delay, a setback that has exposed the United States at its most politically inept, cripplingly litigious and corrupt.

Argument over what should replace the towers began before the last body part was removed from the smouldering ruins. What everyone agreed was that the World Trade Center should be succeeded by another totem to US financial strength. Yet no one could agree on what to build, who should pay for it, how the victims should be remembered and, perhaps above all, who would be prepared to work in a tower designed to celebrate the boldness of the United States in the face of adversity.

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Even ownership of the site was in doubt. Six weeks before the planes hit, the property magnate Larry Silverstein took a 99-year lease on the World Trade Center from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that built the complex in the 1970s. Once the towers fell, Silverstein came under pressure to cede ownership so the port authority could alone develop the site, which had acquired symbolic importance. He resisted, but had to continue paying full rent even though the buildings, along with thousands of his tenants, were a pile of pulverised, toxic rubble.

Silverstein was confident he could cover the cost of rebuilding because he had taken out elaborate insurance. The insurers, however, were determined to minimise their liability. They disputed Silverstein's account: he insisted there had been two separate attacks on two separate towers; no, no, the insurers argued, it was one attack on a single building complex. It would take more than three years and millions of dollars in legal fees before a jury decided in Silverstein's favour.

Eager to get building, Silverstein was resigned to being burdened with costly and time-wasting demands. He agreed that there should be a memorial to the dead and a new cultural building, as long as he was allowed to replace the office space and the shopping mall hidden under the World Trade Center plaza. He then stood back and watched as politicians took centre stage. For many, the rebuilding at Ground Zero was less about national honour than about leaving a lasting monument to themselves.

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It was in part the prospect of a grandiose memorial with his name attached to it that led the city's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, in the dying days of his reign towards the end of 2001, to suggest that term limits be abandoned, allowing him to stand for a third term--an audacious power play that was stifled as soon as it was hatched. In Giuliani's place came the lacklustre state governor Pataki, a Republican Eeyore, who brushed aside Giuliani's successor as mayor, Michael Bloomberg, to put himself in charge of the rebuilding. …