The Capital Costs of Terrorism: Paying the Price for Public Redevelopment

The Costs of Terrorism
Some people I’ve come across in the last few years, including those in the global building community, remain skeptical about the likelihood of a terrorist attack in their city, their community, or against prominent symbols and icons in their country. But, events since 9/11 have shown that Al Qaeda terrorists have attempted to influence 2004 elections by attacking commuter trains in Madrid, successfully attacked public transport in the U.K. in 2005, have tried suicide car bombs at the Glasgow Airport in 2007, and continue to recruit and train people at camps in Afghanistan to launch attacks against Western targets.

A July 1, 2008, front-page story in The New York Times details how Al Qaeda operatives in Algeria set off a pair of bombs outside a train station—the second one timed to hit emergency responders. “We will not hesitate in targeting it whenever we can and wherever it is on this planet,” one of the planners told a reporter.

Despite the billions in reconstruction for the Trade Center site, the overall costs of the attacks of 9/11 to Americans and global citizens are impossible to quantify. There is no value engineering technique or magic bullet to reduce the costs of what Americans have paid—and will continue to pay—for the blood and treasure lost since that day, and going forward.

From the thousands of civilian and military dead and injured in the United States, Iraq, and Afghanistan, resources spent, political capital squandered, leadership opportunities gone awry, public careers lost and won, to the nature of foreign policy and domestic program decisions—the impact of 9/11 will resonate for decades to come. These ripple effects have and will continue to haunt federal, state, and local levels of American government, and affect foreign policies and relations with other countries around the world.

The hard and soft costs of going to war overseas and creating a sprawling Homeland Security agency at home are only part of the post-9/11 financial record. Historians, pundits, and scholars will cite the billions of federal U.S. dollars appropriated by Congress spent on fighting the global war on terror and debate what missions were or were not accomplished.

Chances are good that the Beltway armchair analysts won’t consider the intangible values of what was lost and what is no longer visible outside the federal government. Along with the 3,000 people who perished, and federal payouts to the families, the New York region can also claim the unoccupied sites in and surrounding the World Trade Center; the substantial publically funded capital reconstruction costs for buildings, transportation, and infrastructure; and decreased revenues and jobs. The ongoing delays in schedules and cost overruns translate to a shrinking tax base for the New York metropolitan region, and the financial industry in Lower Manhattan, at a time of soaring fuel prices, increased transportation costs and a weakened economy.

If, as one political advisor suggested in June 2008, a U.S. terrorist attack before the November 2008 election would be good for one political party; the lessons learned from Lower Manhattan 7 years after 9/11 are that a terrorist attack anywhere in the United States would take a tremendous economic and human toll on all Americans and global citizens who live and work here.

Has Government Failed Us?
In his new book, Your Government Failed You: Breaking the Cycle of National Security Disasters (Ecco, 2008), former White House counterterrorism advisor Richard A. Clarke explores how the federal government not only failed to prevent the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C., but also has proven itself incapable of handling the majority of the most crucial national security issues, from Iraq to Katrina and others. As a 30-year insider at the highest levels of the federal government who was the only federal official to apologize to the grieving families during the 9/11 Commission hearings, Clarke details the systemic problems in government and how to confront and prevent them.

While Clarke focuses on America’s national security programs, ultimately, it was the failure of these programs, agencies, and the system that led to the events of 9/11, destruction of the World Trade Center, and the monumental task of reconstruction. Now, New Yorkers and the federal government are financing an $18 billion urban reconstruction project without a clear budget or schedule on the horizon.

Maintaining national security is of paramount importance. Ensuring that buildings and infrastructure are designed to mitigate risks and threats remains the major challenge for the building industry. The astronomical costs of rebuilding the World Trade Center site are just one of the many end results of what happened when the U.S. government failed to protect its citizens “against all enemies” in the months leading up to 9/11.

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