2008-02-15 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Did Giuliani Flub It On 9/11?
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

I'm always amazed at the level of vitriol and anger that pours out of some on the political left, even today when Democrats appear to have an inside track on retaking the White House in 2008. In a letter to the editor in the February 8th edition of this newspaper, Wave reader Ira Feldman angrily takes me to task for praising former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and for expressing my regret that the ex-mayor did so poorly in the recent Florida presidential primary. Criticizing my assertions that the former mayor actually prepared this city to deal with attacks of disastrous proportions, Mr. Feldman condemns the mayor for, in fact, failing to prevent the attacks of 9/11. "Did Giuliani not think that someone trying to blow up the towers on his watch in 1993 might be tempted again?" And: "Did he not read the available reports on using planes as missiles . . .?" I was actually unsure of what I was going to write this week, but Mr. Feldman's comments got my attention - and gave me a focal point for today's column.

Perhaps Feldman, in his fury at the former mayor (and me), is just unaware that mayors, even of big cities like ours, don't have national defense jurisdiction or control over the nation's air corridors, either civil or military (because interstate jurisdiction is reserved by the Constitution to the federal government)? Or perhaps he thinks the mayor could just have scrambled a few NYPD helicopters, on that day, to scare off the hijacked airplanes making a beeline to our city under the direction of suicidal hijackers who boarded them in other jurisdictions? Or perhaps he believes the mayor ought to have had undercover NYPD informants overseas, attending secret al Qaeda operational meetings or eavesdropping on their conversations? (Though I'll bet Mr. Feldman counts himself among those who actually oppose the federal government's listening in on overseas terrorist communications - one of the critical ways we have of getting advance notice of what they're planning!)

On the other hand, perhaps Feldman is of the opinion that New York City's mayors ought to have a seat in our national defense councils in Washington? Of course, he misses the point. In the piece he was responding to, I was addressing the way the mayor had prepared our city agencies to deal with disasters, not whether Giuliani should have somehow contrived to usurp the role and authority of the federal government. It's no knock on the former mayor that he didn't prevent those airplanes from hitting the twin towers, but it would be if, as a city, we had been unprepared to respond or had stumbled badly in doing so. Of course, some stumbles did occur on that day, many regrettable. But the question is whether, on balance, the city performed well in facing up to one of the worst crises in its history - and whether the mayor led us effectively in that. It certainly is not whether the mayor hermetically sealed off the city from all possible external threats.

Feldman further asserts that the former mayor demonstrated poor judgment in at least two instances. The first in placing his now infamous bunker at 7 World Trade Center (destroyed along with the twin towers on 9/11) and the second in selecting Bernard Kerik as former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton's "replacement." I won't defend the choice of the bunker site but will note that Giuliani was the first New York City mayor to create an Office of Emergency Management, to build a protected site for it, and to develop a complex of citywide emergency response plans. While there are reasons to think placing the "bunker" aboveground and so close to the Trade Center was unwise, there were also advantages to that selection including proximity to the communications and administrative nexus of the city and the immediate availability of state-ofthe art cable connections. It's always easy to look wise in retrospect, but it's not quite so easy in advance of events. In setting up an emergency management office, a protected site is for emergency coordination and a citywide planning mechanism, the mayor was demonstrating remarkable forethought. In choosing the wrong location for the site, he demonstrated that none of us are free from the possibility of error.

As to replacing Bratton, perhaps Feldman is just unaware, but Giuliani actually replaced Bill Bratton with Howard Safir, not Bernard Kerik. Unfortunately, Safir became ill and had to step down some time before the events of 9/11 and the mayor, famously loyal to those who are loyal to him, chose to promote Kerik. Obviously a bad choice from a public relations standpoint (Kerik was subsequently accused of wrongdoing), the man has yet to be convicted of the allegations made against him, so it's a bit premature to condemn him - or the mayor who elevated him. But even if Giuliani made a mistake in relying on Kerik, it only shows, again, that he's not perfect. Perhaps I missed it, but I have yet to see evidence that any of us is.

Well, was the mayor grandstanding as he walked through the streets of downtown Manhattan after the attacks on 9/11 as Mr. Feldman also suggests? He's a politician for goodness sake! What else do politicians do? We elect them to get out front and speak for us in good times and in crises and that's just what the former mayor was doing. While he was doing it, of course, his agencies were scrambling throughout the city to respond to a devastating attack against us. Unlike local jurisdictions in some places (New Orleans comes to mind), our police and firefighters didn't head for the hills when the storm came in! Neither did employees of our other city agencies.

Feldman asks: "Was that look on Giuliani's face, fleeing down the street, one of preparedness?" Well, of course not. He was as shocked as all the rest of us. Perhaps Mr. Feldman, wiser than the average bear, wasn't flabbergasted by the destruction visited upon this country and city on September 11th, 2001. Perhaps he already knew what was coming and was ready for the sight of two massive towers collapsing in the middle of our downtown area as hundreds flung themselves from the inferno into the streets below, a fireball destroyed adjacent structures, and gigantic plumes of dust and debris exploded through our streets and enveloped the fleeing citizenry? But if so, why didn't he share his prescience beforehand? Why didn't he dial up the mayor, the governor and the president and alert them to what was to be the largest and most destructive attack on the American homeland in our history? Perhaps Mr. Feldman was just too busy monitoring the mayor's alleged 'failures' as Giuliani reduced spending and taxes, while increasing city revenue and demonstrating that we were not quite the ungovernable municipal monstrosity our news media and pundits had made us out to be?

Referring to my article, Feldman concludes by demanding to know "why can't The Wave . . . find a columnist able to argue a conservative point of view . . . based on the facts?" Presumably he is accusing me of having gotten my facts wrong. And yet it is Mr. Feldman who misses the facts - repeatedly. By the way, since the matter of facts has been raised, I suppose I might as well use this opportunity to respond briefly to another letter regarding a still earlier article I wrote in which I suggested that President Bush may, like Harry Truman before him, fare better in the eyes of posterity than he has with his contemporaries. Sharon Gabriel, a colleague and friend, wrote into The Wave to note that there is no comparison with Truman because the latter "got us out of a war" while Bush got us into one. Well, whatever the relative merits of the conflicts in question, I want to gently correct Sharon (who is a fellow Wave columnist, too). In fact, Truman got us into the Korean War and it was his successor, Republican President Dwight David Eisenhower, who ended it. Facts are, indeed, important, as Mr. Feldman notes, even if they don't always play a significant role in the political postures some of us choose to adopt. rockirreg@aol.com

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