By Jess Wisloski
It didn't take weeks or even months after responders cleared out of the rubble at Ground Zero for merchants to begin hawking wares emblazoned with any sign of national pride. It started with American flags and T-shirts, which were quickly sold out from all local shops and street vendors.
A year later, it was the "dizzying range of merchandise," as a Salon writer noted at the first anniversary of the attacks, in 2002, that pervaded the Web and local gift shops. It included coffee-table photo books, first-responder action figures, and Twin-Tower attack images on mugs, ashtrays, and T-shirts. Even crystal figurines of the Twin Towers, the article notes, were not off-limits. "By trivializing the tragic, we reduce its proportions enough to put it behind us," the writer noted at the time.
Just this year, National Collectors' Mint was shut down for selling $29.95 10th anniversary commemorative coins, which claimed to be 24k gold and have bits of silver from the WTC site, but in fact had very little gold and no silver in them.
But the past ten years have shown us just how far the billion-dollar industry that benefits from the World Trade Center attacks has come.
It ranges from tasteless tcotchkes, like ones in a recent Huffington Post slide-show — including a reflective dog collar, "9/11 Memorial Wine", an embossed cribbage board, the NYC civil servants chess set, and -- gulp -- a snow globe that simulates, yes, the ashes that fell from the sky — to what's an estimated $10 billion overrun in rebuilding One World Trade Center. (The building will ultimately cost twice what any other equivalent skyscraper in New York City costs to construct, according to a recent story in The Village Voice.)
It was recently revealed that proposed commuter bridge and tunnel toll hikes by the Port Authority (the governmental body overseeing the construction) are thanks to yet another wave of cost overruns at the site, to the tune of $2.2 billion. (Construction unions showed up in noisy force at the meetings to show support for the toll increases).
"9/11 has created an economy all its own," observes the Voice which suggested the blown budgets and delays are "little more than a vehicle for disbursing cash into the economy, and enriching certain members of the construction industry" but also as a way of supplying politicians' pet projects or favored developers with hefty government subsidies.
In one example, a ProPublica investigation found that for-profit universities — such as University of Phoenix Online — reaped $640 million, or 36 percent of the Post-9/11 G.I. bill funding, despite the fact that fewer than a 25 percent of soldiers attend these schools. The schools have a reputation marred by misleading recruitment statements, false advertising costs of courses and job prospects, and having high drop-out rates. "Public universities and colleges received a similar amount from the program — $697 million — but the money went to more than twice as many students" according to the investigation.
The profiteering didn't stop there, either. Businesses and individuals found ways to bolster their fame and fortune in the immediate aftermath. As quickly as it took to write, edit, and hit a printing press switch, rescuers, survivors, witnesses and commentators were ready to offer their two cents on the massacre in Lower Manhattan.
Some, like Vincent Forras, a 54-year-old Connecticut firefighter, recounted a personal tale (or conflated one into a more dramatic yarn, as Forras' former colleagues tell the Voice).
In a recently unsealed court case, the U.S. Justice Department alleged that mail carrier FedEx "used 9/11 to profit" by blaming delayed package delivery on beefed-up security measures, in order to dodge penalty fees. A whistleblower reported the incident, saying supervisors told her to lie about delays. The suit settled for $8 million in May.
Others who've cashed in come in the form of politicians-turned-pundits like Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee. Former House speaker and possible 2012 Republican presidential contender Gingrich marketed the release of his conservative group's agenda-film "America at Risk" with the last anniversary of September 11. And Huckabee recently appeared on "The 700 Club" to promote a cartoon DVD series that shows children an animated attack of the World Trade Center, and Osama bin Laden among "Muslim terrorists" with Arabic music playing.
The cultural resonance of these commercial enterprises doesn't always end with simply another set of cash-lined pockets.
Retired FDNY chief Jim Riches, who lost his firefighter son, Jim Jr., in the attacks slammed Huckabee to the press. "Three thousand Americans were murdered, and it's for his personal gain. I think it's blood money," he told New York City TV station, WPIX 11.