The nearly two-year-old saga of Gotham’s sky divers is over. Earlier this month, two of the three men who parachuted off of One World Trade Center escaped prison time for their transgression. Obviously, people should not go around jumping off tall buildings, but the judge in the case was correct to show mercy. Prosecutors overreached in trying to make felons out of adventurers.
Two Septembers ago, in the middle of the night, James Brady, an ironworker at the World Trade Center, took his friends, Andrew Rossig and Marko Markovich, to the top of the 104-story tower. The three donned parachutes and jumped, descending to the ground in the dark. That would have been that, except a nearby Goldman Sachs surveillance camera captured the deed. Police naturally investigated, and prosecutors charged the men with misdemeanors—reckless endangerment, jumping off buildings—and with burglary, a felony. The men won acquittal in June on the felony charge but were convicted for the misdemeanors. Manhattan prosecutors wanted them to serve two months in jail, but the judge, Juan M. Merchan, levied a fine and community service instead on two of the three defendants. (The third, Markovich, faces sentencing separately.)
Yes, the men were reckless. Community service, though, is the appropriate punishment here. Downtown streets are not teeming with pedestrians in the middle of the night. Deterrence, too, is important, but we hardly have an epidemic of skydiving criminals. The judge was right to note that jail for these “decent men . . . would not serve the best interests” of New York City.
It doesn’t serve our best interests, either, to treat post-9/11 downtown as it if it is a permanent fortress of fear and sadness. Older New Yorkers will remember when Philippe Petit, a French adventurer, strung a high wire between the Twin Towers in 1974 and walked between the buildings, then recent additions to New York’s skyline. What Petit did was, of course, illegal and reckless (the city dropped charges against him). But as architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote in Up From Zero, his chronicle of post-9/11 rebuilding, Petit’s high-wire act “added a level of glee” that the Twin Towers’ architect “surely never dreamed of. Petit . . . enlisted the towers as co-performers, and humanized them. Things were not the same.” The exhilarating trailer for an upcoming film about the now four-decade-old walk reminds one not only of the up-close beauty of the old towers but also of how they came to belong to us.
One World Trade Center—the new one—doesn’t yet have that identification in our minds. We’re still being told how to think about it. By jumping off “an iconic building constructed on hallowed ground,” Judge Merchan said in sentencing Brady and Rossig last month, “these defendants tarnished the building before it even opened and sullied the memories of those who jumped on 9/11 not for sport.”
One World Trade Center is indeed located on hallowed ground, and people did jump to their deaths there. If we had built a cemetery on those 16 acres, any visitor would be right to comport himself as if he were in a cemetery. But, for better or for worse, we built another supertall skyscraper there. Are the people who work in and around that building, or who look at it every day, always meant to be sad and respectful? Must they always think that One World Trade Center is our bold answer—or our weak surrender—to terrorism? Should they never look out the windows and just enjoy the view?
Unlawful as their actions were, Brady, Rossig, and Markovich saw in the new One World Trade Center something that most people don’t see yet: the potential for a few moments of joy. That impulse didn’t tarnish anything. They floated through the air, and nothing bad happened. The end.