NEW YORK – Discordant New Yorkers accustomed to squabbling over the smallest matters of civic interest are suddenly in agreement about the trials of the accused September 11 plotters. Nobody wants them here.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder had hoped to orchestrate a grand gesture by trying suspected mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other defendants in federal court in downtown Manhattan.
Symbolically, the civilian trials would be a few blocks from where the World Trade Center's twin towers collapsed in 2001 after hijackers crashed airliners into them, and in the same neighborhood where lives were upended by the tragedy and health harmed by breathing in smoke, ash and dust.
But that plan is being challenged by a groundswell of opposition in New York City and from conservative politicians in Washington who want the White House to retreat. The Justice Department conceded last week it was searching for alternative sites.
Alarmed by a security plan that would snarl traffic and disrupt commerce, the largest city in the United States has resorted to a common argument from middle America: Not in my back yard.
"The local community got (the opposition) going. But real estate interests, the local community and elected officials came together at the same time. It's amazing," said Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president.
By moving the trials from military to civilian court next to the site of the attacks, the Obama administration has tried to show the U.S. justice system is prevailing over al-Qaida threats. The security cost of holding the trials in New York City, though, was pegged at more than $200 million a year.
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly unveiled a restrictive security plan in January that shocked residents, business and real estate companies in the surrounding areas, which include tourist attractions such as Wall Street, Chinatown and the Brooklyn Bridge.
"It's one thing to agree in the abstract, it's another to see what it really means. As the police commissioner started showing the security plans, I think people realized it's not just dollars and cents, it's the impact on the community," said Liz Berger, president of the Downtown Alliance business improvement district.
Both the police commissioner and the downtown business interests had access to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who once declared it was fitting that the September 11 suspects face justice in New York, but last week reversed course and said he would rather the trials be held elsewhere.
PUGNACIOUS CITY COMES TOGETHER
This diverse and chaotic city -- one that routinely brands itself as the greatest metropolis in the world -- can be very pugnacious; an oversized billboard or an out-of-place hot dog stand can provoke passionate civic debate. Now it is unified.
"It's a great example of the community coming together. Everyone who could be impacted took a look in an organized manner. That's why the decision makers listened. That's what politics is all about," Berger said.
As New York gradually emerges from the global financial crisis, businesses and residents say the trials are an unfair additional burden.
"While there's part of me as a New Yorker that says 'Bring it on,' you have to be smart sometimes," Stringer said.
Manhattanites who feared turning the heart of downtown into a bunker found allies in the U.S. Senate, where a conservative group of senators plan to introduce legislation on Tuesday that would bar federal funding for prosecuting the September 11 suspects in a civilian court.
As critics of Obama's national security policy, they have pushed for trying them in a military court.
"It was a snowball gaining a lot of support," said Steve Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York. "This will have dramatic repercussions wherever it may take place. You need to listen to the local community and not just decide out of an office at the White House."
© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.