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Did the World Trade Center BASE jumpers 'violate' the sacred site?

This week a video emerged online of a man BASE-jumping from the top of New York’s 1 World Trade Center. The video is a lot of things: Thrilling and frightening. Extremely stupid also comes to mind. Yet another way of looking at it is as a grave desecration of hallowed ground, a veritable slap in the face to our collective national pain.

That’s the response the Port Authority, which owns and operates the building, had to the video, and to the news that the four men involved in the jump had turned themselves into police on Monday.

“The Port Authority joins the NYPD in condemning this lawless and selfish act that clearly endangered the public,” the agency said in a statement. “One of the jumpers worked construction at the WTC and violated the spirit of respect and reverence for this sacred site that almost all connected with the WTC project feel.”

James Brady, Kyle Hartwell, Marco Markovich and Andrew Rossig, three of whom parachuted from the top of the country’s tallest tower in September, have been charged with felony burglary, misdemeanor reckless endangerment and misdemeanor jumping from a structure. The news comes only a few days after a 16-year-old New Jersey boy broke into the tower before being apprehended.

As with all things concerning 9/11, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear such a reaction. Clearly the act of breaking into a building is a crime, and for that the parties involved will rightfully be charged.

But this idea that in doing so they’ve also violated the sanctity of our pure national grief is ridiculous.

“Am I the only patriot here who thinks these people that disrespect the hallowed ground at ground zero should be tarred and feathered?” asked a commenter on Gawker, whose reaction was demonstrative of the type of moral panic that always arises whenever we talk about anything to do with the World Trade Center.

Isn’t this supposed to be a memorial to the fallen victims, others have asked.

Well, no, that’s what the nearby 9/11 Memorial is for. The World Trade Center is supposed to be a place of business, and, fine, if we’re feeling romantic, a symbol of our indomitable spirit and old-fashioned American ingenuity. But the idea of the sanctity of 9/11 being violated? That ship has long since sailed. The smoke had scarcely cleared after the attacks when there were vendors selling 9/11-related souvenirs in the neighborhood. Ever since, brands have reliably bungled their way into one ham-handed attempt after another at seizing 9/11 as a marketing opportunity, like AT&T's ill-conceived cellphone tweet last year. Countless films, television programs and books have been produced to make money off of 9/11.

The truth is, there is nothing sacred left when it comes to 9/11 because so many vultures have already swooped in to pick the carcass clean. That’s to say nothing of the even worse tragedy profiteers: the politicians and warmongers who leveraged the attacks into bloodletting adventures abroad.

With respect to the actual victims of 9/11 -- whose pain and suffering I would never seek to downplay in any way -- for the rest of the world, it’s just a building. A big building, sure, but a building all the same. No matter how much symbolism we try to force onto it, it’s just a building. What do people expect is going to take place in it once it’s actually opened, anyway? Mediation and prayer? No, it’s meant, like the twin towers, for commerce. That is, if they can get enough tenants to sign on.

Shouldn’t we be thanking these guys for showing us security flaws in the system before someone with a more sinister intent could find them?

Setting aside the construction delays and the astronomical price tag of the tower, the entire conceit of 1 World Trade Center is a spectacle itself. No wonder that people like the BASE jumpers and the trespassing teen would be drawn to it; attention-seeking is built into its very DNA.

Or, if you insist on looking at it as some sort of emblem of American virtue, consider this: What’s more demonstrative of our adventurous, risk-taking spirit as a nation than finding the tallest building, climbing it, exploring it and jumping off of it, just because? This wasn’t a violation of anything; it was an affirmation.

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Luke O'Neil is a Boston-based writer and frequent contributor to the Boston Globe, Esquire and Slate. Follow him on Twitter @lukeoneil47

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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