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A symbolic attack

By Eric Miller.
web posted September 24, 2001

Minoru Yamasaki and his World Trade Center
Minoru Yamasaki and his World Trade Center

Minoru Yamasaki was born into a poor Japanese family. With a childhood marked by poverty, Yamasaki had a burning desire to be an architect. He worked long enough in an Alaskan fish cannery to put himself through the University of Washington. He arrived in Manhattan in 1934 with just $40.

Yamasaki's story is one known well by Americans. We grow up looking down the tracks and burn with the desire to know what's at the end of the line. If it isn't what we want, we lay new tracks. Perhaps more than anywhere else, we embrace diversity, challenge and foreign ideas. The ideals we are instilled with as children give us the confidence that there are no limits to what can be achieved, what we want to do or who we want to be.

In the United States, Yamasaki's story is not unique. From presidents and corporate executives to great inventors and scientists, many Americans have humble beginnings but go on to leave invaluable contributions and monuments to their ideas for future generations. Yamasaki's monument was the World Trade Center.

Built in 1976, at a time when New York and the idea of a city seemed to be heading downhill, the World Trade Center rose over lower Manhattan, dwarfing the magnificence of earlier skyscrapers built by other American success stories from Woolworth to Rockefeller.

Both Yamasaki and his building were testament to more than an American success story. They were testament to a diverse country where diverse people could cooperate and work to achieve a better society and civilization. It was also a testament that through a new openness, the ideas and ideals could benefit the rest of the world. He called his building a living symbol to man's commitment to world peace.

"Beyond the compelling need to make this a monument to world peace, the World Trade Center should, because of its importance, become a representation of man's belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his beliefs in the cooperation of men and through cooperation, his ability to find greatness," Yamasaki wrote.

The terrorists who sacrificed their own lives and the lives of still countless individuals clearly had no interest in individual dignity. Theirs was an attack on humanity and peace.

The attackers perhaps symbolically targeted a skyscraper, focusing on its upright stature as a symbol of power and oppression -- and one that embraces the sometimes unnerving concept of human interaction as foreign trade. While many can think of the tall buildings in terms of oppression, the skyscraper builders often thought of them much differently, as was expressed in Ayn Rand's classic novel The Fountainhead, commonly read by architecture students.

"I like to see man standing at the foot of a skyscraper," says the character Gail Wynand, a newspaper magnate in the novel. "It makes him no bigger than an ant -- isn't that the correct bromide for the occasion? The God-damn fools! It's man who made it -- the whole incredible mass of stone and steel. It doesn't dwarf him, it makes him greater than the structure. It reveals his true dimensions to the world."

To Rand, who experienced a similar success story following her immigration from Russia, New York and its skyscrapers symbolized what life was about: a purposeful pursuit; a place where achievement abounded. "New York is activity and activity is life -- that's what Ayn Rand would say," recalled Dr. Harry Binswanger, a long-time associate and editor of The Ayn Rand Lexicon. Not unlike the new ideas Yamasaki expressed with his design, to Rand New York was not only a place different in appearance from her Russian homeland, it represented a new way of thinking.

"New York is the land where man is free to develop his genius -- and to get its just rewards," Rand wrote. New York symbolized what Rand idealized in her novels: man as a creator.

The structures of New York are a symbol of progress and man's triumph over war, oppression and nature. The spires rise behind a green statue that promises refuge and hope to poor immigrants the world over. They are part of the most dynamic city on earth where people of all races, colors, cultures, creeds, interests and orientations live in peaceful cooperation. When the World Trade Center was attacked, like a city being emptied after a war, people were forced to disperse on foot.

It is only a city that can facilitate communication between people. It is only in a city where a civilization can advance. The words "city" and "civilization" share the same root. These ideas were attacked Sept. 11.

"I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York's skyline," Rand wrote in The Fountainhead, "The sky over New York and the will of man made visible. I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body."

The attack wasn't on people as much as it was on a way of life that has allowed people to live peacefully and prosperously. New York and Washington sustained most of the damage, but cities around the United States felt the pain and understood the attack as one on the idea of individual dignity, civilization and world peace.

While the buildings may be gone and lives sacrificed in the process, New Yorkers and the world will remain committed to these ideas and ideals and walk back if necessary to see that the ideals and opportunities remain and are realized -- and human peace and greatness continue to be achieved.

Eric Miller is editor of www.newcolonist.com.

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