Almost everyone agrees Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad doesn’t belong at ground zero.
So who gets access these days to the 16-acre pit where the World Trade Center once anchored the Manhattan skyline, a slice of the city that many regard as hallowed ground?
Construction workers. The families of victims. The occasional journalist. And not too many others, in stark contrast to the days immediately after Sept. 11 when the smoldering site was overrun with celebrities, politicians and even Playboy playmates.
Amid the chaos after the twin towers fell, rescue workers and cleanup crews mingled with a parade of well known visitors: Muhammad Ali, Robert De Niro, cast members from “The Sopranos,” Martha Stewart.
Miss America Katie Harman signed body ID tags for grateful workers. Boxing promoter Don King toured the site, as did U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other world leaders. Almost half of the Senate arrived en masse.
The vast majority came to offer support and condolences, although critics suggested others viewed a trip to the devastation as a photo op.
“It was like you had celebrity status only if you got in at ground zero,” recalled Brian Jordan, a Franciscan priest who spent long hours in lower Manhattan in the weeks after two hijacked planes struck the towers.
Within a month, the city was turning down hundreds of requests to visit the site and began asking celebrities to avoid the area as the treacherous search for remains continued.
Official: Ahmadinejad had no chance
Six years later, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said a proposed ground zero visit by Ahmadinejad during next week’s U.N. General Assembly had no chance. Police cited ongoing construction and security concerns, and the Iranian president, who is under Secret Service protection while in the U.S., was told to steer clear.
“We have communicated our concerns to the Iranian Mission,” Kelly said. “I am sure they will abide by our statement ... Our position is that he will not be permitted to go.”
Some objected to Ahmadinejad's visit on political grounds.
“To have the leader of the greatest state sponsor of terrorism in the world visit the site of the most heinous terrorist attack on America would be an affront to the victims and families of 9/11 and to all who lived through that day,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
The sentiment was echoed by the State Department, where deputy spokesman Tom Casey called the idea of an Ahmadinejad visit “rather appalling and the height of hypocrisy.” New York-based presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani also expressed their opposition to the suggested visit.
Giuliani, the mayor at the time of the attacks, was caught in a dust-up when he took a Saudi prince on a tour of the site in October 2001. Giuliani then rejected the prince’s $10 million relief check after the prince suggested U.S. policies in the Middle East were partly to blame for the carnage.
Raw feelings persist
The Ahmadinejad request to lay a memorial wreath was the latest reminder of the still-raw feelings about the site.
Before last week’s anniversary of the attacks, family members battled with city officials to gain access to the area where the 110-story buildings once soared. The official ceremony was held in a nearby park, but the mourners were permitted to walk down into the site during the service, perhaps for the last time.
Some family members stayed home rather than participate in the first yearly memorial not held on the site itself.
Hard hats and construction equipment are a daily presence at ground zero. The stream of tourists who visit the site every day must stand on a sidewalk and peer through a fence.
Speaking engagement at Columbia
Though Ahmadinejad may not be welcome at ground zero, he is at Columbia University, where he is scheduled to appear Monday at a question-and-answer session with faculty members and students as part of the school’s World Leaders Forum.
City Council speaker Christine Quinn, though, is not happy and has called for Columbia to withdraw the invitation, saying it was providing a forum for the leader’s “hate speech.”
“The idea of Ahmadinejad as an honored guest anywhere in our city is offensive to all New Yorkers,” council speaker Christine Quinn wrote. “Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier, here for one reason — to spread his hate-mongering vitriol on the world stage.”
Columbia president Lee Bollinger has described the event as part of “Columbia’s long-standing tradition of serving as a major forum for robust debate, especially on global issues.”