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September 11: Why Did God Allow It?

Ellen White's prediction elaborated on some of the problems behind skyscrapers such as those in New York City, problems that she was shown would eventually bring about their destruction. We'll quote her prediction at length, up to the point just prior to where she heard the alarm of fire, and saw fireproof buildings burning like pitch.

The enemy has succeeded in perverting justice and in filling men's hearts with the desire for selfish gain. "Justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter." Isaiah 59:14. In the great cities there are multitudes living in poverty and wretchedness, well-nigh destitute of food, shelter, and clothing; while in the same cities are those who have more than heart could wish, who live luxuriously, spending their money on richly furnished houses, on personal adornment, or worse still, upon the gratification of sensual appetites, upon liquor, tobacco, and other things that destroy the powers of the brain, unbalance the mind, and debase the soul. The cries of starving humanity are coming up before God, while by every species of oppression and extortion men are piling up colossal fortunes.

On one occasion, when in New York City, I was in the night season called upon to behold buildings rising story after story toward heaven. These buildings were warranted to be fireproof, and they were erected to glorify the owners and builders. Higher and still higher these buildings rose, and in them the most costly material was used. Those to whom these buildings belonged were not asking themselves: "How can we best glorify God?" The Lord was not in their thoughts.

I thought: "Oh, that those who are thus investing their means could see their course as God sees it! They are piling up magnificent buildings, but how foolish in the sight of the Ruler of the universe is their planning and devising. They are not studying with all the powers of heart and mind how they may glorify God. They have lost sight of this, the first duty of man."

As these lofty buildings went up, the owners rejoiced with ambitious pride that they had money to use in gratifying self and provoking the envy of their neighbors. Much of the money that they thus invested had been obtained through exaction, through grinding down the poor. They forgot that in heaven an account of every business transaction is kept; every unjust deal, every fraudulent act, is there recorded. The time is coming when in their fraud and insolence men will reach a point that the Lord will not permit them to pass, and they will learn that there is a limit to the forbearance of Jehovah.—Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, pp. 11-13, emphasis supplied.

It should be pointed out that the Bible also condemns the amassing of wealth by a few through fraud and extortion and oppression of the poor. Thus, even if Ellen White were a false prophet, if these problems really did exist in New York City, then that might explain why God did not work a miracle to prevent the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11.

Even before this vision or dream of late 1901, Ellen White was already sounding the above warning. Apparently she had a number of visions or dreams about expensive buildings burning and falling. The following (which was later adapted for one of the quotes we presented in our main article on 9/11) comes from a letter written on January 28, 1901:

God has a storehouse of retributive judgments, which He permits to fall upon those who have continued in sin in the face of great light. I have seen the most costly structures in buildings erected and supposed to be fireproof. And just as Sodom perished in the flames of God's vengeance, so will these proud structures become ashes. I have seen vessels which cost immense sums of money wrestling with the mighty waters, seeking to breast the angry billows. But with all their treasures of gold and silver, and with their human freight, they sink into a watery grave. Man's pride will be buried with the treasures he has accumulated by fraud. God will avenge the widows and orphans who in hunger and nakedness have cried to Him for help from oppression and abuse. And the Lord keeps a record of every action of good or evil.—Manuscript Releases, vol. 14, p. 148.

The above thoughts leave us with several questions as we ask ourselves what might have been the reason the tragedy of September 11 took place:

  1. Who built and owned the World Trade Center?
  2. What motivated the construction of such huge buildings?
  3. Were the materials used "the most costly"?
  4. Where did the owners get the money to build the project?
  5. Were the hungry, naked, homeless, widows, and orphans being neglected?

Of course, the above questions are not quite fair, for the building of the World Trade Center doesn't have to match every last specified detail. What Ellen White described was a trend involving many buildings, and the specific buildings destroyed in the vision or dream, while representative of that trend, do not necessarily have to incorporate every last feature of it.

1. Who built and owned the World Trade Center?

The easy answer is that it was owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a quasi-government agency operated by unelected officials who answer only to the governors of New York and New Jersey. And it was built by various architects, engineers, contractors, and Port Authority officials and employees. But that's the easy, over-simplified answer. Here's the more complex one.

David Rockefeller had recently built his Chase Manhattan Bank tower in lower Manhattan. He wanted to raise the value of property in the area, which would both protect his bank's investment in his new building, and help his family's real estate ventures, and that's why he pushed to have a World Trade Center built. Because of his role and the role of his brother Nelson, the governor of New York at the time, the twin towers were nicknamed "David" and "Nelson."

There were a number of obstacles that had to be surmounted. For one thing, what about all the mom-and-pop businesses thriving on the future site of the World Trade Center? Using a quasi-government agency to build their towers, the Rockefellers avoided having to negotiate with the owners of the 164 buildings that stood in the way. If the owners and tenants didn't want to sell and move, they could be forced to do so anyway because of "eminent domain."

Over 300 businesses, employing 30,000 people and directly providing the livelihood for as many as 120,000 more, were destroyed.

"They never had a chance," said Ronnie Nadel. . . .

Many of the merchants closed shop, never to reopen. Some relocated. Others went to work for someone else, while others simply retired. "A lot of them passed away from the stress," said MacInnes. . . .

Janet Webb is still angry about her father's ordeal. "We were all getting to be about college age," she said of herself, her brother and her two sisters, "and they took his livelihood away."—Syd Steinhardt, "The Death of New York's Radio Row."

There were other advantages to working through a quasi-government agency, but we'll wait on that until question four.

2. What motivated the construction of such huge buildings?

In the courtroom, the Port Authority had all those "small-fry" moms and pops beat, but what about on the public relations front? The strategy may sound peculiar, but in order to outgun the protesters, the Port Authority changed their plans. They increased the projected new square footage of office space from the five million David Rockefeller had originally proposed to ten million. Why did they do that?

It would . . . make the Radio Row merchants look like mere obstructionists standing in the way of the inevitable march of progress.—"The Height of Ambition," The New York Times Magazine, Sept. 8, 2002.

But such a monstrous undertaking angered someone who wasn't a small fry. Lawrence Wein, an owner of the Empire State Building, joined the fray. His principal concern was that the sudden availability of ten million more square feet of office space that wasn't really needed would depreciate real estate values all over the area, and he was right. When the towers opened up, there were so few businesses waiting in line to rent space that much of the rental space ended up being taken up by government agencies. Real estate values did decline, and the whole thing was a financial fiasco. Not until years later did the World Trade Center turn a profit.

Greed, pride, love of power, the desire to leave a legacy. Can you think of any worthier motives that might have been behind constructing the tallest buildings in the world, buildings that weren't even needed, trampling over everyone in the way?

There are those who feel that something akin to greed and pride made the whole catastrophe worse. The goal of the design was to 1) maximize profits and the amount of rentable floor space, and 2) end up with the tallest buildings in the world, which required as light a structure as possible. To that end:

  • The exterior steel tubes, while four inches thick at the bottom of the building, were but a quarter inch thick at the top.
  • The office space lacked support columns, which would have reduced rentable floor space. Instead, all interior support columns, elevators, and stairwells were concentrated in the core of the building.
  • Support columns and stairwells were not encased in masonry so that the structure could be lighter and taller.
  • They were fireproofed with sheetrock and a foam instead of masonry.
  • Floors were supported by light trusses, not heavy beams, also fireproofed with foam.

Because of all this:

  • The planes sliced through the thin steel tubes and swept across the spacious floors with little resistance, knocking off the foam fireproofing in the process.
  • The planes knocked out every stairwell in one blow, except one in the south tower, preventing escape from the floors above the impact.
  • The sheetrock of the lone surviving stairwell was damaged so badly that only 18 people out of about 300 could find the stairwell and escape.
  • The lack of masonry around the steel supports left those components vulnerable to an intense fire.
  • The lighter steel trusses couldn't hold up as well as heavier steel beams in the intense heat, and they were the first thing to give way during the collapse.

3. Were the materials used "the most costly"?

The original budget was $280 million dollars, but by the time the project was completed, the total cost for the twin towers was more than a billion. That comes to more than $100 per square foot, which isn't cheap by 1960s and 1970s standards.

When the towers first opened, there were complaints from some sectors about extravagance:

The Port Authority was criticized for the extravagant d├ęcor in the World Trade Center club: They had gold fixtures in the bathrooms, pink marble on the walls, silk ceilings. Some of the most celebrated criticisms were there were four chairs that cost $3,500 a piece.—Angus Kress Gillespie in "Americana Collapse," Reason, Sept. 13, 2001.

But the World Trade Center was just a huge example of a long-standing trend:

The sumptuous 5,874-seat Radio City Music Hall (1932) is an Art Deco delight. Designed as a palatial entertainment center affordable to the general public, it was opened on December 27, 1932.

The opulence of the foyer stunned theatregoers during the depression. It has a ceiling 60 feet (eighteen meters) high and drapes extending from the ceiling to the floor, ornate mirrors, and long, slender chandeliers.—"Rockefeller Center"

Building materials weren't the only thing that cost a lot at the World Trade Center. When the towers collapsed, an estimated $100 million dollars of artwork was lost ("The Art of War," Philadelphia Weekly, Jan. 2, 2002).

4. Where did the owners get the money to build the project?

Another advantage in using a quasi-government agency to build the World Trade Center involved the financing of the project. No bank would loan to private parties for such an enormous venture, but the Port Authority could issue bonds on their own to cover the cost.

But there's more to it than just that. If the state of New York or New York City had issued the bonds, then they would have had to get the approval of the voters, but a public authority like the Port Authority doesn't have to worry about such things. Thus, in the case of a default, the tax payers of New York would have had a moral obligation to pay the bondholders for bonds they never had voted for.

Moreover, the bondholders end up with an investment that leaves them with little risk. If they built and owned the building themselves and the venture went sour, then they would lose a lot of money. But if a government agency builds the building and they buy the bonds issued by that agency, then they make a profit without taking on the risk of the project.

Ellen White spoke of skyscrapers being built with money that had been amassed through fraudulent means and through oppression of the poor. But how to trace who the bondholders were and where they got their wealth becomes a difficult task, of course.

NYC's worst slum c. 1897—Jacob A. Riis Collection, www.mcny.org.
New York has a long history of being the home of "robber barons," wealthy men who accumulated their fortunes by monopolizing an industry, manipulating the stock market, paying workers too little, charging too much, bribing officials, and allowing unsafe working conditions. Different folks will have different opinions about men like John D. Rockefeller, J. P. Morgan, Jay Gould, and Andrew Carnegie, and about what the situation really was like at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. But whatever the situation really was, U.S. Presidents got involved, and laws were passed to correct the perceived evils, the very evils Ellen White cried out against. And now, thank God, the working women of New York can earn a livable wage while engaging in reputable employment, something that was not possible in 1890 (Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, ch. XX).

The fortunes of the robber barons didn't all vanish from New York when they passed from the scene. It is not hard to imagine, therefore, that some of their wealth, or the wealth of others like them, ended up financing the building of the World Trade Center.

5. Were the hungry, naked, homeless, widows, and orphans neglected?

Many of the robber barons of yesteryear became philanthropists, giving much of their wealth away to universities, libraries, and various projects that sometimes ended up bearing their names. But even with all the philanthropy, a few questions remain when one considers certain biblical teachings, questions the rich of today should likewise consider.

Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. (Matthew 6:1)

If the principal motive for giving to various projects is the desire to leave behind a legacy or an institution bearing one's name, that is not so good.

And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living. (Mark 12:43, 44)

It's not the amount that counts, but the sacrifice that the amount represents that God looks at. Little sacrifice, little reward.

Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy rereward. (Isaiah 58:6-8)

We would not advocate the forced redistribution of wealth by government, but rather the voluntary aid of the worthy poor by the wealthy and the preaching of convicting sermons by their preachers about their God-given responsibility to render such aid. Thus, in light of Isaiah 58 we ask, How many of the honest poor that were cast out because they could not pay the mortgage or rent did New York City bankers bring to their homes? How many of the hungry did they feed? At least one?

We wish not to judge anyone, but there are questions that, in the light of September 11, must be asked.

  • Why are 20% of New York City residents and 31% of New York City families at or below the poverty level? ("Poverty in New York, 2002," Community Service Society; "New York City Facts Sheet")
  • Why have poverty rates for New York City been 70% higher than the rest of the nation for decades? ("Poverty in New York, 2002")
  • Why do 7% of New York City families report experiencing hunger? ("New York City Facts Sheet")
  • Why did the poverty and near poverty rate for those 65+ years old in Manhattan climb from 26% in 1989 to 34% in 1999? (Old and Poor in New York City, p. 3)
  • Why did the same rate for those in the less-affluent part of Manhattan jump from 41% to 51% in the same time period? (Ibid.)
  • Why does the New York City Department of Homelessness report that there are over 9,000 homeless families, nearly 9,000 single adults, and over 38,500 homeless individuals within her borders as of January 2004?

It makes absolutely no sense at all.

In the great cities there are multitudes living in poverty and wretchedness, well-nigh destitute of food, shelter, and clothing; while in the same cities are those who have more than heart could wish, who live luxuriously, spending their money on richly furnished houses, on personal adornment, or worse still, upon the gratification of sensual appetites, upon liquor, tobacco, and other things that destroy the powers of the brain, unbalance the mind, and debase the soul.—Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, p. 12, emphasis supplied.

Finance capital of the world! Center of wealth and power! Home of Wall Street! What must Heaven think?

"God gave me the money," he proclaimed in 1905. . . .

'Tis true, 'tis true, as long as that money wasn't accumulated through bribery, extortion, oppression of the poor, and other practices God condemns.

. . . "I believe that the power to make money is a gift from God." And he concluded that his earnings should be used for "the good of my fellow man . . . according to my conscience."—"John D. Rockefeller: A Photographic History," Financial History, 66.

Again, 'tis true. The wealthy who live unto themselves, who hoard God's bounties, who do not aid those that are in genuine need: well would it be if they pondered the parable of Jesus found in Luke 12:16-21.

Did Ellen White pinpoint possible reasons behind God's removal of protection from the World Trade Center on September 11? If she did, then before we rebuild the World Trade Center bigger and better than it was before, we really need to ensure that 1) our motives for doing so are not based upon a desire for self-glorification, 2) the needy at our very doors are not being neglected, and 3) the money to be invested was not obtained through bribery, extortion, or oppression. Otherwise, . . .

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