Sunday, September 12, 2010

Losing the Best of 9/11

September 11 is a difficult anniversary, but the bile that distinguishes this one is particularly troubling. Here are my thoughts on the matter of 9/11 and the proposed Muslim communty center, reprinted from the Sunday, September 5, 2010 Record at

Nine years after September 11, as debates rage over plans to build a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan, we stand on the brink of losing one of the best things about our region’s response to the assault on the World Trade Center: the inclusive spirit that animated our first wave of rescue efforts and mourning rites. And that would be a terrible loss to inflict on ourselves.

I saw that inclusion as a survivor of the attacks and as a historian who tried to interpret our responses in essays, documentaries, conferences and public lectures.

Inclusion wasn’t the only one reaction to the attacks—there were stupid, ugly things said and done in all sorts of ways--but the determination to share our struggles and our griefs in public harmonized with our constitutional freedoms and our need to overcome terrible losses.

We need to remember that today. It’s not only a matter of freedom of religion and showing the world that our fight is against terrorists, not Islam. It’s also about keeping faith with what was best in us after 9/11.

When the South Tower collapsed in smoke and flames, I was standing on Broadway near Liberty Street. I ran for my life, expecting any second to be buried under a mountain of falling debris. Instead, I was caught in a cloud of smoke that choked me and blinded me until I finally caught my breath and my bearings.

As I staggered eastward through the smoke, I came upon one man who looked to be from South Asia and then another man whose ancestry seemed to be Latin American. We locked arms to support each other and plodded forward.

As we trudged down a narrow side street, someone pushed open a door to an ordinary building and hauled us inside.

There, in a food court, we were helped by one man who probably came from the Middle East, another who might trace his family to Ireland, and women with roots in Africa and Latin America. We did the best we could to help each other: we rinsed our eyes and throats, shared cell phones to call our loved ones, and soaked towels in water to make improvised dust masks for when we ventured into the murky streets outside.

There might have been a Muslim among us, but we never got around to asking each other’s religion. All we did was recognize each other as human beings who needed help.

Still, not everyone was helpful as I trekked home covered in ashes and dust. I had to ask twice before someone loaned me a phone to call my mother in North Jersey. Once, when I knocked on a restaurant’s door to beg a glass of water, the staff told me they were closed.

But I saw enough kindness to convince me of something I have believed ever since: the good people in this world outnumber the bad.

When I made my way home to East 81st Street in Manhattan, I impressed on my wife and children the most important thing I had seen: in a crisis, ordinary people had stepped forward to do incredible things—and that would see us through.

Foxhole solidarity eventually gave way to something more subtle. As the shock of the attacks yielded to the grief of mourning, the ecumenical spirit of improvised memorials was apparent throughout the metropolitan area. Walking the streets of New York, I saw sidewalk memorials jammed with Jewish yarzheit candles, Roman Catholic mass cards, and a typewritten prayer from a Muslim cleric.

In Union Square, patriotic memorabilia rested next to signs that said “Our Grief Is Not a Cry for War.” The bitter smoke from the World Trade Center hung thick in the air, but never have I seen a better display of religious freedom and the right to dissent.

It was not all peaceful coexistence. In New York, and in Jersey City, some Muslim parents kept their children home from school for fear of attacks. Newspapers reported verbal abuse of Muslims in New York City. Conspiracy mongers and anti-Semites claimed that Israel was implicated in the attack.

Yet formal observances, both immediately after 9/11 and one year later, were visibly interreligious. “A Prayer for America,” a memorial service at Yankee Stadium held September 23, 2001, included Hindu, Muslim, Protestant, Sikh, Jewish and Roman Catholic devotions. One year later, at an interfaith memorial service, police officers, firefighters and rescue workers joined in as Muslim students from the Noor Ul Iman School at the Islamic Society of Central Jersey led everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance.

As we wept together in the aftermath of September 11, we learned about each other’s responses to common experiences. We could even grasp that, for all our differences, each of us contained something of the other: a Jew’s injunction to remember; a Roman Catholic’s sense of communalism; a Muslim’s feeling of fear in a familiar region that suddenly seemed threatening; and a Baptist’s faith that the city would rise again.

The hijackers attacked us with indiscriminate hatred: they killed Americans, Muslims, and people of many more nationalities and religions. Our response should distinguish between terrorists and Muslims. It should also affirm humanity and freedom. And that includes freedom for religion in the shadow of Ground Zero.

As we struggle to maintain justice and security in our region, we should embrace people of all religions and nationalities who are willing to work for a better tomorrow. That surely includes the people who want to build a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan. To do less is to violate the best spirit that our region displayed in the hell of 9/11.

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