There were no buildings, no roads, only burning dunes of debris. His brother, Patrick, was somewhere here, and Sean Gallagher was conscious of wanting, a little too much, to be the one to find him, and of fearing he might not recognize him if he did. They hadn’t seen each other in months, and Sean kept trying to call up Patrick’s face, only to realize, as they came upon ruined bodies, that the faces of memory and of death might not match.
Interview: "Fact and Fiction"
Amy Waldman talks about exploring 9/11, first as a journalist and then as a novelist
Hours passed. Days. He couldn’t breathe well, couldn’t hear well—some new kind of underwater, this. Movie-set lights glared overhead. Often, obscured by smoke, hidden by piles of rubble, the rescuers were only voices, but that was enough. Every time he put out a hand to take or to give, another was there, waiting. With time came a mappable order: the remains here, the personal effects there, the demolished cars beyond, the red sifters and the yellow ones, the tents and roster areas and messes and medics, the assembly line, a world more real to Sean than the city outside. Returning to Brooklyn each night was like coming home from war, except that it no longer felt like home. He was amazed at what people talked about and what they didn’t, how clean their fingernails were, how pristine their routines. His wife told him he smelled like death, and he couldn’t believe this repulsed her. The dust he brought home was holy—he shook out his shoes and his shirt over newspapers to save it.
Someone else found Patrick, which was probably just as well. Now, nearly two years later, the attack site was a clean-swept plain, and across the East River in Brooklyn the Gallagher house prickled with the energy of a campaign. Ten members of the family and a dozen of Sean’s Memorial Support Committee—retired firefighters; victims’ fathers—were crammed around the dining table, all its Thanksgiving leaves in use. Sean’s mother, Eileen, and his three sisters cleared empty plates and refilled coffee cups with grim efficiency. Copies of the New York Post splayed open to show the words ADDING ISLAM TO INJURY? over an image of the rubbled attack site. From 5,000 anonymous entrants, a Muslim had been selected to design the memorial to the dead.
Frank, Sean’s father, was on the phone with a reporter: “Yes, we plan to fight this until our last breath. What? No, sir, this is not Islamophobia. Because phobia means ‘fear,’ and I’m not afraid of them. You can print my address in your newspaper so they can come find me.” A pause. “They killed my son. And I don’t want one of their names over his grave.” Another pause. “Yes, we found his body. Yes, we buried him in a graveyard. Jeez, you’re really splitting hairs here. It’s where he died, okay? It’s supposed to be his memorial, not theirs. Is there anything else? I’ve got a long line of calls to take ”
A voice from below: “You heard anything, Sean?” Mike Crandall was stretched out on the floor, his back having given out again. Retired from the fire department, he never missed a meeting, although sometimes Sean wished he would.
“Nothing,” Sean said. He hated to say it. He was supposed to be the one with the lines in—to the governor’s office, to the jury that had picked the memorial. That those lines had gone dead convinced him, suspicious of power by nature, that the story about the Muslim was true, and to his shame this relieved him. A Muslim gaining control of the site was the worst possible thing that could happen—and exactly the rudder Sean, lately lacking one, needed. Catastrophe, he had learned, summoned his best self. In its absence, he faltered.
The decade before the attack had been a wild lurch through the white space of adult life. Each bad choice had fed off the last. He dropped out of junior college; started, absent other options, a handyman business, then drank because he detested bending beneath the sinks of people he’d grown up with. And because he liked to drink.
Five months before the attack, he’d gotten a little loud, a little sloppy over dinner at Patrick’s. He roared about their parents’ disapproval of him, then cursed profusely, creatively, when he dropped a bowl of soup. A stony Patrick pocketed his car keys and drove him home, and when Sean went to retrieve his beat-up Grand Am the next day, Patrick told him not to come around for a while. “You can’t just expect people’s respect,” Patrick said, by way of saying Sean had lost his. To this day Patrick’s three children treated him with the politeness of fear.
But on the insultingly beautiful morning of the attack, it was of Patrick, whose engine company was a quarter-mile from the buildings, that Sean thought first. He raced to his parents’ house, then went with his father to search. Before long he was kicked off the recovery crews for not being police, fire, or construction, but he kept volunteering at the site, working its edges. When he learned how paltry the space allotted to the memorial was, he formed a committee to demand more. He got the acreage doubled. His “trouble with authority” had become official advantage.
Soon he was giving speeches all over the country—usually in the small towns no one else wanted to visit—to Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, to police and firefighter and veterans organizations, all of them eager for a firsthand account of the rescue-and-recovery operation. In his speeches, as in his head, even his derelictions became proof of devotion. “For seven months, every single day, I went to the hole,” he told his audiences. “I lost my marriage”—always murmurs at this point—“I lost my business, I lost my home, but that’s nothing.” A pause. “My brother—my only brother—lost his life.” Sometimes people would break into inadvertent applause at this, which was awkward. Sean learned to lower his eyes until it stopped.
Even returning to live with his parents after bailing on his wife seemed right. The Gallaghers’ modest Brooklyn Victorian had always been carefully tended, but by the time Sean moved back, the paint was peeling, the doors squeaking, a mouse leaving brazen shit. Sean, without asking, fixed, cleaned, cleared, painted, sanded, oiled, caulked, trapped. Put his hands to good use. Took down the family pictures in the hall and replaced them with pictures of Patrick from boyhood to man. Eileen, who’d always given Sean, the youngest of six, a threadbare mothering, warmed.
But then he was left off the jury appointed to choose the memorial design. The requests for him to speak began tapering off. In the movies Sean watched, redemption, once obtained, was never lost. In life, redemption was walking up the down escalator: stop to congratulate yourself, and back you slid. The old him kept popping up, reflected often in his mother’s eyes. In recent months she’d reverted to her brusque self, telling him too often to make his bed. His father kept calling him by Patrick’s name, and even though Sean didn’t have the heart to correct him, Eileen, acidly, did. His “contracting” business, which he’d tried of late to restart, felt like a suit he’d outgrown without money for a new one. Two days earlier, he had stalked off a job installing IKEA shelves after the housewife who hired him asked if he would carry her garbage down to the street when he left. “Do you know who I am?” he wanted to scream at her, but the true answer burned: he was a handyman living with his parents.
Now he mattered again. By noon he had given eleven interviews about the outrage of a Muslim designing the memorial. He had his committee members phoning family members and first responders to urge them to lobby the governor. And he had renamed his group the Memorial Defense Committee, since the memorial selected by the jury was unworthy of support.
In late afternoon, with the committee members discharged, the Gallaghers gathered in the living room to watch the news. Like food chewed until it has lost all taste, the story was largely unchanged since the morning: a Muslim had won, no one knew who he was.
“There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a Muslim,” the mayor was saying on New York 1. “It all depends what kind of Muslim we’re talking about. Islam is a religion of peace, as I’ve said many times. The problem is that some people haven’t gotten that message ” It wasn’t clear whether some people referred to the violent Muslims or to people who slandered the peaceful ones.
“Religion of peace, my ass,” Sean’s brother-in-law Jim said.
Sean watched his mother, seated on the sofa, watch an invisible point on the wall. Her hand traced the same small circle on her thigh over and over, as if to burn through the fabric. Screams pierced from outside, where the children, released from school into a glorious fall afternoon, were playing touch football. The adults, on edge, froze. Sean went to the window. A celebration: Tara, his four-year-old niece, had been given the ball to score. It always began this way, charitably, before the girls and the little ones were banished to the sidelines to watch the real play. Sean, the youngest adult in the room, felt momentarily wistful for the sweat and clarity of football in fall air. The rules were known to all. By habit he raised and lowered the window, checking for stiffness and warp.
Everyone stirred: true news at last. The Muslim himself, holding a press conference to announce that he was the winner. His name was Mohammad Khan. An architect. A good-looking, light-skinned guy in an expensive suit. Arrogant. “I am an American, and I have as much right as any other American to design this memorial,” he said. The Gallaghers were reduced to a kind of gap-mouthed silence, punctuated by the children’s laughter and shrieks.
“It’s too much,” Eileen whispered at last, “too much.” Frank half-stood, leaned toward her slightly, sat back down. One daughter, next to her on the couch, took her left hand. Another came to take her right. Eileen reclaimed it to keep rubbing her leg.
“It’s not enough to kill us, they have to humiliate us too,” Brendan, another of Sean’s brothers-in-law, said. He had led a brief protest at his subway stop after the station manager’s name, Talib Islam, was posted on the clerk’s booth. “They expect us to look at that name every day?” he’d asked. The Transit Authority answered by posting cops in the station to protect Islam, which made Brendan apoplectic. Then, one day, the manager was gone, which seemed a victory until they learned of Talib Islam’s promotion.
Now a Muslim’s name would torment them in a spot that, unlike a subway station, belonged not to the city but to the families of the dead. Sacred ground. Pity for his mother overwhelmed Sean, swamped his own anger. He often wondered if she wished that he, rather than Patrick, her firstborn, her favorite, had died. Today thinking that true only enlarged his compassion for her. It wasn’t his parents’ house, but the place where Patrick had fallen, that needed keeping.
“Please, Sean, don’t let this come to be,” Eileen said. The look in her gray eyes—what was it? He’d never seen it, not from her. Pleading. His steely mother admitting her need. If, at that moment, she had asked him to strap on a bomb and blow up someone or something, he probably would have. But she hadn’t asked. A plan was up to him.
So,” Paul Rubin said, “what can I do for you?”
It was eight-fifteen in a coffee shop on Madison Avenue. After repeatedly blowing Sean off, Rubin’s smarmy assistant had called to say that the chairman of the memorial jury would squeeze Sean in for breakfast, but he shouldn’t be late. So Sean arrived a few minutes early, settled into a booth in the middle of the restaurant, then waited fifteen minutes for Rubin, who peremptorily relocated them to a window table for more privacy.
The place looked ordinary to Sean, but the prices weren’t: five bucks for half a grapefruit, twelve for a bagel and cream cheese. Lots of men in fancy tracksuits, women who appeared to subsist on grapefruit halves alone.
“Yes,” Rubin said. A retired investment banker, he was, even at this hour, in his bow tie. Soft-bodied and half-bald, he still oozed confidence. It was amazing what money made up for. “Politicians love this place. So what can I do for you?”
“What you can do for me—”
“The usual,” Rubin said. The waiter had come for their order.
“Uh, three eggs, bacon, coffee, juice,” Sean said. “White toast. So, what you can do for me—”
A silver-haired man stopped by the table to shake Paul’s hand. “I have great confidence in the outcome because you’re handling this, Paul. I wouldn’t want anyone else in charge.”
“Thanks, Bruce, I appreciate that,” Rubin said. Sean was not introduced. He felt himself in the camp of the enemy—not Muslims, but the people born with silver sticks up their asses, the people who had made Manhattan into a woman too good to give Sean her phone number.
Bruce gone, Sean tilted across the table. “How the hell did this happen?”
“And you’re referring to what, exactly?”
“Come on. A Muslim winning. Mohammad Khan.”
“How did it happen? As I recall, people like you—you, the families—you wanted a competition, a democratic exercise everyone could participate in. And so everyone did.”
“That’s not who we meant by everyone.”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“But it should. You think we’ll stand for a Muslim memorial? I should have been on the jury. This never would have happened.”
“I’ll remind you, the competition was anonymous.”
A young man approached carrying a strapping blond toddler. Rubin gave the boy a pro forma chuck on the cheek.
“Sounds like you’ve got a mess on your hands,” the man said.
“Probably less of one than you’ve got, Phil,” Rubin said. The boy had loosed a waterfall of chewed-up cracker from his mouth.
Phil smiled and said, “If anyone knows about cleaning up messes, it’s you.” He turned to Sean: “If you’d seen how Paul dealt with the Asian crisis …” As he seamlessly interwove ass-kissing and financial-speak, Sean saw himself too clearly: a no-name, worthy of addressing but not worthy of knowing. An audience, not a player, unshaven in his windbreaker because he hadn’t wanted to be late.
Rubin tapped his fingers with impatience: “Thanks, Phil, that’s much appreciated, good to see you.” The distraction dismissed, Rubin lowered and toughened his voice at the same time. “There will be a public hearing on the memorial design. You can speak your mind there, Sean. But you might want to make your opposition a little less crude.”
“Honest, you mean? We need to be more crude, not less. What’s the point of a hearing, if we’re not going to be able to speak our minds?”
“You can speak, but in a civilized manner, a manner befitting the fact that Mohammad Khan is as American as you are. He has rights, including the right not to be denigrated for his religion.”
“What about my rights? The families’ rights? The victims’ rights? Don’t they count for anything?” Sean raised his voice. Customers turned. Let there be witnesses. “My parents’ rights. Do you know what this is doing to them?”
“Emotions are not legal rights.”
“I tell you this is tearing up my parents, and you lecture me about legal rights?,” Sean exploded. In a gesture that meant either “Call the cops” or “Check, please,” Paul raised a single finger to the man at the cash register.
“What about right and wrong?” Sean barely tempered his volume. “Whatever happened to that? If you’re going to police what we say at that hearing, then we’ll find a way to say what we want.”
“Be my guest,” Rubin said. His even tone made Sean’s yelling ridiculous, and his look withered Sean to boy-size. “Go lie down on the site, if it will make you feel better. But the hearing will stay within appropriate bounds.”
Sean stood and tossed a $20 bill onto the table. The small smile this triggered from Rubin, whose net worth exceeded Sean’s by a factor of roughly four hundred thousand, sent him stumbling in rage out of the restaurant and down Madison Avenue. He stopped only to scowl at his image in a shop window, to confirm that every unkempt aspect of him called out for disrespect. His hair, smacked into order before he left the house, was now a melee. If he tried to enter the shop, he suspected that the owlish store clerk staring at him through the glass would refuse to buzz him in. In the window, long white gloves were laid out like prone bodies, a display that brought to mind Rubin’s mockery—“Go lie down on the site, if it will make you feel better”—then, unexpectedly, an idea. Sean mustered his most lunatic smile, pressed the buzzer until he saw panic on the smug owl’s face, and moved on.
The first joint meeting of Save America From Islam and the Memorial Defense Committee came to order a few days later at a Brooklyn church borrowed for the occasion. The SAFIs, as they called themselves, like some lost Judaic tribe, were mostly from Staten Island, Queens, and Long Island, and they were mostly women. As far as Sean knew, most of them hadn’t lost anyone in the attack. Radical Islam was their freelance obsession. His mother’s rage was so quiet you could forget it was there. Not so with the SAFIs. They were the professional wrestlers of activists.
Their leader, Debbie Dawson, looked like a poorly weathered Angelina Jolie. She had to be close to fifty, but her blog, The American Way, showed her in a see-through burka with only a bikini beneath. Today she was wearing a custom-stitched T-shirt that said INFIDEL, and a rhinestone-encrusted PEACE around her neck.
It was Debbie who had called Sean to propose that their groups collaborate. “They’re trying to colonize this hallowed ground,” she said. “This is what they’ve done all over the world, all through history: they destroy something, then build an Islamic symbol of conquest in the same place. Babur tore down Ram’s temple in India and put up a mosque. The Ottomans conquered Constantinople and made the Hagia Sophia—what else?—a mosque. Here, one set of Muslims destroys the buildings and now another comes along to take over the space. For all we know, this was part of the plan.”
Sean, in agreeing to work with Debbie, had imagined himself leading an expanded crusade against the memorial, but nothing about these women—Christians, Jews, housewives, retirees, and one real-estate agent—suggested that they would be easily led. They would barely shut up for one another. And their knowledge of the Islamist threat far outclassed his. Some SAFIs toted copies of the Koran marked up with orange highlighter, but the best of them had memorized the offending parts.
Debbie and Sean were standing in front of the altar. Together their members filled most of the pews. Debbie’s honk of a voice carried effortlessly down the nave. “What we have here, although it may not look that way, is a stroke of unimaginable luck. Two years after the attack, Americans were getting complacent. This attempt to claim our most meaningful space—it’s a wake-up call. This is what I’ve been trying to tell people: You think the violent Muslims are dangerous? Wait until you see what the nonviolent ones do!”
“The problem isn’t just the Muslims,” Sean broke in. “It’s all the people in power who want to police what we think, what we say. They care more about tolerance, more about political correctness, than they do about national security or respecting our dead. They call us un-American, then take away our free speech. So we’re going to take back the site, literally—we’re going to lay our bodies down on it, and not leave until they agree to hold a new memorial competition. Who’s up for getting arrested?”
Hands shot in the air like they were doing the wave. Cheers and whoops dissolved into a single throaty chorus: “Take it back! Take it back!” Sean passed around a sign-up sheet. Hands on her slim hips, Debbie eyed the Virgin Mary as if sizing up a potential recruit.
The Rally to Protect Sacred Ground kicked off on a balmy Saturday morning in a plaza opposite the site. The members of both the Memorial Defense Committee and Save America From Islam were there, gathered in a cordoned-off area in front of the stage. Behind them stretched thousands: women holding signs that said NO TOLERANCE FOR THE INTOLERANT or KHAN IS A CON; fathers hoisting small children on their shoulders; men in camouflage who may or may not have been veterans. Hundreds of relatives of the attack victims had responded to Sean’s personal phone calls asking them to come. The crowd overflowed the small plaza, out into the street, between the buses that had chauffeured protesters from across the country. News choppers huffed overhead.
Debbie Dawson was kitted out in tight black pants and yet another T-shirt she had designed, this one reading KAFIR AND PROUD. Two buff men in Ray-Bans, blue blazers, and khaki pants trailed her through the crowd; when she stopped to give interviews or greet supporters, they positioned themselves on either side of her, facing out, feet planted in a wide stance, arms never fully relaxed. Bodyguards, Sean realized. She looked like she was having the time of her life.
Taking the stage for his speech, Sean surveyed the swelling crowd. Maybe all the nut jobs had gathered near the front; there seemed to be a lot of them. An obese man in suspenders held a poster that showed a pig eating a Koran. Three women hoisted a banner that said NUKE ’EM ALL AND LET ALLAH SORT ’EM OUT. A pimpled teenager dressed in black and wearing Harry Potter glasses held a sign reading THEY CAN HAVE THE FIRST AMENDMENT BECAUSE WE HAVE THE SECOND, with a crude drawing of a gun aimed at the face of a turbaned man. Human loose ends; an irregular army that Sean hadn’t summoned and couldn’t decommission.
Every time he had given a speech since the attack—some ninety in all—he had been convinced that to lose a loved one in this way was privilege as well as curse. The overfed, overeager faces listening to him hungered for what couldn’t be bought, and he pitied them for their unmet desires to go somewhere deeper, be part of something larger. As horrible as the attack was, everyone wanted a little of its ash on their hands.
But the mass of people before him today radiated neither reverence nor want. Patrick once had shown him how the back pressure from opening the nozzle on a fire hose too fast could knock a firefighter off a ladder. Sean didn’t trust this crowd, its volatile anger. Feeling off his game, he kept his speech short. The microphone’s feedback was distracting, and the cheers scattered, irregular, as if he couldn’t be heard. When he said, “We all know the Constitution matters, don’t we?” there were uncertain roars, a few boos. “We just don’t think it’s the only thing that matters,” he finished. Some applause, at least, but tepid.
When Debbie strode onstage, a SAFI volunteer moved in behind her to wave an American flag. A battery-powered fan placed in front rippled back her long hair. “I want us to be clear that we are fighting for the soul of this country,” she bellowed. The crowd, its hearing suddenly acute, roared. “For generations, immigrants came to this country and assimilated, accepted American values. But Muslims want to change America—no, they want to conquer it. Our Constitution protects religious freedom, but Islam is not a religion! It’s a political ideology, a totalitarian one.” More roars. Sean rocked a little on his feet, unhappy that her broadside had revealed his to be forgettable. Soon she was leading a cathartic, rousing cry of “Save America from Islam! Save America from Islam!”
The chants were meant to cue the lie-in. Sean raised his right hand in the air and blew a whistle. His committee members and the SAFIs bunched around him like excited schoolchildren, then smoothed into perfect marching-band rows as they moved into the street.
Sean’s original vision had been constricted by a series of compromises. The governor claimed to have no power to give permission to protest on the site itself. Even obtaining approval to block the street in such a sensitive spot demanded a concession: the police wanted, in advance, a list of those planning to be arrested. Now Sean realized that the cops had already closed the street, leaving it as empty of cars as the weekday church parking lot where they had practiced lying down. There was no blocking to be done.
With less gusto he blew again, and the marching band became a drill team: some five hundred well-spaced people kneeling as one, the move meant to mimic Muslims praying. But instead of touching their heads to the ground, the protesters stretched out on their backs. “Giving Allah the Navel,” Debbie called the move.
“Protect sacred ground!” his members chanted.
“Save America from Islam!” the SAFIs chanted.
Sean, after surveying the weave of bodies, lowered himself into a cloud of SAFI perfume and his own sweat. The ground beneath his back was hard, the sky above a piercing blue, smooth as newly made ice cream. A day as clear, as stunning, as the one that had brought the attack, a gift of a day, but irritation was stuck somewhere in him like a pebble in a shoe.
“You are blocking a public street,” a police official said through a bullhorn. “I’m going to count to one hundred, and by the time I finish, you all need to disperse. If not, we will begin making arrests.”
The tight scripting struck Sean now as enfeebling (“forty-three, forty-four, forty-five …”), his cohort’s defiance as nothing more than managed submission. His secret hope had been that maybe the police wouldn’t arrest them at all, would refuse to follow orders, would choose patriotism over duty (“sixty-nine, seventy, seventy-one …”). But listening for the sound of the blue wall cracking, all he heard were police boots scuffing. And then: “ninety-eight … ninety-nine … one hundred,” and, “Please stand, sir, let’s not make this difficult, thank you, appreciate it, hands in front, these are plastic, don’t actually hurt, thank you.”
“Terrorist lover!” he heard a SAFI scream at a cop, who said, almost kindly, “Ma’am, I’ve got four kids, the only thing I love is my paycheck.”
Their politeness was killing him, as was his back. Lifting his head to check on the police, he saw a silent group of counter-protesters standing across the street. Most, but not all, looked Muslim—the head scarves on the women, the beards on the men, the dark skin. They held signs: ISLAM IS NOT A THREAT and MUSLIMS DIED THAT DAY TOO and BIGOTS = IDIOTS. That last sign flooded Sean’s brain with red, which also happened to be the color of the head scarf on the woman holding it. Rubin wanted him to be less crude? He scrambled to his feet and stalked across the street. “Are you calling me an idiot?” His spittle flew; his voice cracked; he didn’t care. “You’re calling my parents bigots? A bunch of Muslims killed my brother. Why aren’t you out protesting them? Have you ever held up a sign that said, ‘Murder in the name of my religion is wrong’?”
“Of course it’s wrong,” the woman said steadily, “but discriminating on the basis of religion is wrong, too.”
Her placidity, so provoking, made him want to provoke her in return, and the most provocative act he could think of was to tug back her head scarf, and he reached out, some small part of him also wanting to see what was so valuable it had to be covered, and caught the edge of the scarf as she stepped back in fear, so that the scarf came forward, a little roughly, maybe he blinded her for a moment, maybe his hand brushed against her head, then a police officer was separating them, or rather holding back then handcuffing Sean, reading him his rights, bundling him in a van with his committee members and the SAFIs, who were chanting “No Muslim memorial!” as they flashed him thumbs-ups, and at the station the others were taken and quickly processed and let go, while he was held for arraignment on a misdemeanor assault charge along with a miscellany of shoplifters, public urinators, and trespassers before being released on his own recognizance.
Debbie called his pulling the head scarf “a stroke of genius.” Outraged liberals called it a stunt. None of them would believe he hadn’t planned it. His determination to escape the script served only to affirm it.
He returned home with a hard ache in his chest. His mother greeted him with pursed lips and a silent shake of her head. His wet-eyed sister Miranda whispered, “It looked pretty bad.”
“Well, fuck that,” Sean said, and went up to shower. But he avoided his own eyes in the mirror. He’d out-Debbied Debbie, and it didn’t feel all that great.
The second head-scarf pulling occurred less than a week later. A man in a Queens shopping mall walked up to a Muslim woman pushing a baby stroller, tugged her head scarf back, and ran. The next took place in Boston. This perpetrator waited for the police to arrest him so he could testify to the media: “I saw that guy do it on the news, and thought, we all need to be that brave, take a stand.” Within a week there had been more than a dozen incidents around the country. Some non-Muslim women put on head scarves in solidarity, but no one preyed on them.
In an editorial, The Times called Sean representative of “a new, ominous strain of intolerance in the land.” Reporters called him to ask how it felt to represent a new strain of intolerance. The atmosphere in his parents’ house chilled. “It’s the Muslims who are supposed to mistreat women,” Eileen said to him when he came into the kitchen one evening. Her hands were full with a tray of roast chicken, but before he could get the swinging door to the dining room, she turned around and backed it open with her rear end.
When the FBI called to say that hostile references to Sean were popping up in jihadist chat rooms, it created the perfect excuse to vacate his parents’ house for a while. He told Debbie he needed to relocate temporarily, figuring that she would find him somewhere to stay. He didn’t expect it to be in her apartment.
Her home was a sprawling aerie on the Upper East Side, two units her husband had conjoined before he split. She lived with her three daughters: Trisha, eighteen, flouncy, fond of flashing Sean the straps of her bra, when she wore one; Alison, sixteen and flitty; and Orly, at thirteen the baby, a pout. All three had signs saying NO-ISLAM ZONE on their doors: Debbie wasn’t allowed to talk about “the cause,” as they disdainfully referred to it, in their rooms.
Sean felt like he had come upon the Wizard of Oz in his bathrobe, since Debbie spent most of the day in hers. Once the girls went off to school, she entered her virtual world, obsessively updating her blog, rallying supporters and volunteers (two of whom acted, on occasion, as those bodyguards), flaming opponents across the Web.
One afternoon he caught a glimpse of her blog. Her burka-bikinied body—the camera focus, he knew now, had been soft—had shrunk to make way for a new item. It said, in huge letters:
The American Way is currently giving asylum to a refugee from Islamist political violence. DONATE NOW! This man has had to flee his home. We are feeding and housing him. DONATE NOW!
“Is this me?” he asked Debbie.
“I am housing you,” she said. “And someone’s got to put these girls through college.”
“Daddy’s going to put us through college,” Trisha said.
Debbie cut her eyes at her eldest. “Women need to be financially independent.”
“That blog,” Trisha said, wrinkling her pert nose, “is not going to make you independent.”
Another head-scarf pulling, the victim hospitalized for anxiety, her toddler son, who’d been holding her hand, bawling on the news. The president, who had taken, as yet, no position on the memorial, went on television to ask for civility and respect. He called what Sean had started “a plague.”
“A plague of good sense!,” Debbie snapped at the screen. She was editing Trisha’s college-application essay, which was titled “My Mother the Firebrand.” Fearing that liberal colleges would blackball her for being Debbie’s daughter, Trisha had decided to write about how she both respected her mother (“Two years ago she was a housewife who spent most of her time watching soap operas. The attack changed everything. She educated herself …”) and disagreed with her (“Sometimes I think she tries too hard to be provocative. I believe in dialogue”). Debbie was totally on board with this strategy, but she had crossed out watching soap operas and replaced it with taking care of my sisters and me.
The bawling son again: the cable channels couldn’t get their fill of him. Sean kneaded his right fist into his left palm and eyed Debbie’s liquor cabinet, to which the girls, he knew, had copied the key. He’d been stone-dry since the attack, but for all the virtues in sobriety, it was harder to blame his mistakes on it. Worst of all, pulling the woman’s head scarf had done nothing to derail the Muslim memorial, instead drawing attention away from the huge crowd he had mustered to protest it. The architect was still insisting on his right to proceed, and the laws, the rules, seemed to be on his side. Sean was left with his mother’s pain, which was on intimate terms with her anger. He sniffed failure, that old stink.
“She called, you know,” he told Debbie, who turned, alert, toward him.
“The woman whose head scarf I pulled. Zahira Hussain. Well, she didn’t call: her representative did, from some Muslim council. They said that if I meet with her and apologize, she’ll ask that the charges against me be dropped.” He didn’t say that the man from the council had talked about wanting to make this a “teachable moment.” He knew how Debbie would take that.
“No apology!,” Debbie said. “They’re looking for a propaganda coup—a nice Christian boy, an American, submitting to Islam. This is legal jihad—using the criminal-justice system to persecute you. We’ll raise money for a good lawyer.”
“I was just thinking of talking to her. No harm in that.”
“No harm,” Debbie said, with a musing, canny look.
The SAFIs were waiting for him when he arrived at the office of the Muslim American Coordinating Council. “No apology! No submission!” they screamed, with Debbie in the lead. A scrum of reporters and camera crews shouted questions at him. His instinct was to flee. He clenched his fists and pushed through.
“Did you call the press?,” Sean asked Issam Malik, the council’s slick head, when he got inside. “I thought this was supposed to be private.”
“You can’t teach to an empty classroom,” Malik said. Sean disliked him instantly. They filed into a conference room filled mostly with men, along with a few women in head scarves. For the first time in his life, Sean was the only white—the only Christian—in the room. Unsettled by this, he was scanning for danger when he heard, from an alarmed voice in the corner, “What’s in the bag?”
All eyes went to Sean’s gym bag, which was over his shoulder. When he’d left Debbie’s that morning, he had packed up all his things except for his suit, which he wore so it wouldn’t crumple. He knew he wouldn’t be welcomed back after going to the council.
“What?,” Sean said.
“What. Is. In. The. Bag.” Malik said it slowly, as if Sean didn’t speak English. Two men stood.
“Fuck!,” Sean said. “Fuck!” He ran his hands through his hair, bent down, unzipped the bag, and began dumping its contents on the floor. Jeans, sneakers, T-shirts, Sports Illustrated, boxer shorts, and, mixed in with the dirty socks, a pair of pink cotton panties—Trisha’s. He’d lifted them. Excuses crossed his mind. They had gotten mixed up with his clothes in the dryer. She’s legal. Nothing happened anyway. Forget it: they didn’t know anything about where he’d been.
There was silence. The men were looking at one another. The women were looking down. No one wanted to look at Sean or his stuff.
He turned his gaze up to the ceiling. “I’m carrying my clothes because I had to leave where I’ve been staying,” he said. His eyes stung. “I left because I was coming here today, and they thought I shouldn’t. So I am homeless because I came here today,” he added, exaggerating a bit. “And you think I came in here with a bomb?”
“A gun,” a man said in a low voice. “I thought you might have a gun.”
“People are—we are … on edge,” Malik said. “The mood is very tense right now. There’s violence in the air, and you bear some responsibility for that. We don’t know you from Adam. You organized a rally where people were making death threats. You yanked a woman’s head scarf. How are we to know what else you’re capable of?”
I’m not capable, not capable of anything, Sean thought. He pulled his wallet from his pocket, sending a few stray receipts drifting to the floor, and extracted a small photo of Patrick in his dress uniform. He held it up. Everyone peered to see. “This was my brother. My brother who died. Was killed. By Muslims. Jesus! Why is it so hard to do the right thing?”
“I’m sorry,” a woman said. Sean looked at her. He couldn’t have picked her face out of a lineup, but he knew the red scarf. He had seen, too many times, his hand reaching for it. It couldn’t be an accident that she was wearing it today.
“You only have one scarf?” he said.
“You’re wearing the same scarf as that day. You think I’m a bull—that I’ll see it and go nuts again?”
“I didn’t realize—”
“Did you say you were sorry? Sorry for what? I’m the one who’s supposed to be sorry, remember? Isn’t that why I’m here? So you all can humiliate me, make me bow down, kiss your ring or whatever?”
“No one made you come,” Zahira Hussain said gently. Her face was pumpkin-round, her eyes were striking, hazel, long-lashed. “No one’s making you stay.” She was talking to him like he was a man on a ledge; he was surprised not to mind. Bending to stuff his possessions back in his bag, he cast about for his next move. He was red-faced—he didn’t need a mirror to know it.
“I want to talk to you in private,” he told her.
“That’s not appropriate,” Malik said.
“Our religion believes in modest interchange between the genders. And her humiliation was public, so the apology needs to be as well.”
“I want to talk to her in private,” Sean repeated.
“It’s not possible—” Malik started to say.
“We’ll go in there,” Zahira said, pointing to Malik’s office, “with the door open.”
Over Malik’s objections, Sean and Zahira rose, as if in unspoken agreement, and took possession of his office. An epic desk, big enough to protect Zahira’s reputation, dominated the room. She seated herself behind it and folded her hands atop it. Sean took a chair on the other side. There were three TVs on. He tried not to watch.
“Before an apology, Sean, I’d like an explanation,” Zahira said. Ever since she first spoke, he had been trying to pinpoint what struck him as odd in her speech. It was the lack of oddness, of accent, he realized. “What made you pull my scarf? Had you planned it?”
“No!” he said. “Your sign made me mad.” Aware how childish and impulsive this sounded, he borrowed Debbie’s words: “But also, we don’t make women cover their hair in this country.”
“No, we don’t make women cover their hair.” She put the stress on we. It seemed to amuse her. “But women are free to choose to, as I did. No one’s making me do anything. My own father is against me covering. It’s my choice,” she repeated. “No one else’s.”
Sean’s eye wandered to one of the televisions, which was replaying his passage through the shrill, bawdy gantlet outside. He looked tense, even fearful. Less brave than he had felt. He had imagined that moment of deciding to plow ahead as his version of Patrick’s charge into a burning building. Now he saw how foolish that notion was. He knew, had long known, that, facing flames as Patrick had, he would have run the other way. Worse, he wasn’t sure he was wrong. The building had pancaked immediately on top of Patrick. Sean, staking himself on matters far lesser, lived on, even if he sometimes hated himself for it.
Zahira, too, was watching Sean’s arrival, the screaming SAFIs. After a few moments she picked up the three remote controls, one by one, to switch off the screens. Then she turned to Sean with a new gentleness—as if she were conducting a job interview and hoped to hire him—and said, “So other than protecting women from themselves, Sean, what do you do with yourself? Where do you live—never mind, you said you’re homeless. Not forever, I hope. What kind of work do you do?”
He thought about his days hanging pictures and caulking tile. About the itchy suit—bought for Patrick’s funeral, repurposed for giving speeches—that he wore. “I’m in transition,” he said. “You?”
A Columbia University student double-majoring in literature and economics. The sting of Bigot = Idiot returned.
“You called us names,” he said. “Is that what they teach up at Columbia?”
“No, I thought that up myself. Maybe it was a poor choice. But I do think bigots are idiots. I’m not saying you’re bigoted if you’re against this memorial design. But I’d like to hear why you are against it.”
“Because the designer’s Muslim. What other reason do I need?,” Sean said, but he couldn’t meet her eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said, then to clarify, “Sorry I pulled your scarf.” The words came without forethought, but they weren’t insincere.
“You mean it?” she asked, suddenly small behind the desk. It was as if they were two children pretending to be adults in their father’s office, although his own father, also a firefighter, had never had an office. He suspected Zahira’s did—wasn’t that how you got to Columbia?
“I mean it. I’m sorry I pulled your scarf.”
She studied him with pretty, distrusting eyes, then said, “You should say it publicly, to send a message to all the people copying you.”
He chewed his bottom lip for a bit, nodded his assent, then pushed up out of his chair. They returned to the conference room, which Malik, in their absence, had packed with reporters. Sean stepped, with Zahira, to a spot ringed with microphones. She smelled of bubble gum—or maybe that was a scent relic of the Dawson girls. Malik planted himself on Sean’s other side.
Sean put his gym bag at his feet and cleared his throat. “I am really sorry I pulled Zahira Hussain’s head scarf, and I told her so,” he said, speaking slowly so that the reporters could take down his words. “What I did was wrong. If anyone else does it, it’s wrong. My brother, Patrick—he would have been ashamed of me, and I wish I could apologize to him, too.” He had said his brother’s name hundreds, maybe thousands, of times since Patrick’s death—“You talk about him more now that he’s gone than you talked to him when he was alive,” his mother observed once—but saying it now seemed to lift, finally, the weight of that drunken night at Patrick’s.
But almost immediately, a new weight landed. Maybe it was Patrick’s name that spirited Sean to his parents’ living room, where, lacking a home of his own, he would soon return. Seeing himself framed in their television, sandwiched by Muslims, he tried to reconstruct how he had wandered here, to the other side, and he tried to scramble back.
“But Patrick also died trying to save people from Islamic terrorists,” he said, “and we will never apologize for not wanting anyone Muslim—anyone named Mohammad—connected to this memorial. It’s not personal, not prejudice. Just fact.”
Delight flared in the reporters’ eyes. Outrage fluttered from Malik’s lips. The room convulsed with the rearranging of bodies, furniture, air. Sean heard shouts, then felt rough, unforgiving hands propel him out the door, as if he had a bomb after all. His gym bag tumbled after him. Through it all, he kept his mind with his parents. Only at home with them later, watching the replay on television, did he see the anguish in Zahira Hussain’s face.