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.