Fearing death and facing death

September 11, 2012 by Peter · Leave a Comment 

On the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, tributes and remembrances abound, as they should. We learn by remembering.

As a resident of lower Manhattan, I am surrounded by the spirit(s) of those who gave their lives on that defining day. Like all New Yorkers, the awful sights, sounds and smells of that day are seared into my mind. I flew back to New York from London on September 10th, 2001, casually admiring the majestic towers on the drive into Manhattan. The fact that those twin icons would vanish 24 hours later was unthinkable.

On that crisp and beautiful morning, I was leaving for a meeting at 7 World Trade Center, when a family member called and told me to turn on the television. I did. And everything changed, forever.

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Witnessing history

January 13, 2012 by Peter · Leave a Comment 

Every age has its historic moments.


The 9/11/01 attacks and brutal amputation of Manhattan’s skyline
One of the most destructive tsunamis ever recorded (Indian Ocean)
One of the deadliest earthquakes ever recorded (Haiti)
One of the worst environmental disasters of all time (Gulf spill)
The virtual drowning of a major U.S. city (New Orleans/Katrina)
The near-drowning of a major U.S. city (New York/Sandy)
Japan’s monster earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster
The emergence – and denial – of the greatest man-made threat to human life (climate change)
The Middle East and North Africa uprisings

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Why is it so easy for Bloomberg? (Part II)

August 24, 2010 by Peter · Leave a Comment 

I’ve been writing about the Ground Zero mosque because I live across the street from the World Trade Center site and I consider it an important debate about religious freedom and tolerance. Also, having grown up in Beirut, these issues are especially meaningful to me.

On August 3rd, Mike Bloomberg stepped up and showed Democrats how to stand for core principles without falling into rightwing traps. After  three weeks of fumbling and bumbling by Democrats and crass opportunism by Republicans, Bloomberg once again shows how simple it is to take the moral high ground. Following are comments he made this evening:

“In recent weeks, a debate has arisen that I believe cuts to the core of who we are as a city and a country. The proposal to build a mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan has created a national conversation on religion in America, and since Ramadan offers a time for reflection, I’d like to take a few minutes to reflect on the subject.

“There are people of good will on both sides of the debate, and I would hope that everyone can carry on the dialogue in a civil and respectful way. In fact, I think most people now agree on two fundamental issues: First, that Muslims have a constitutional right to build a mosque in Lower Manhattan and second, that the site of the World Trade Center is hallowed ground. The only question we face is: how do we honor that hallowed ground?

“The wounds of 9/11 are still very much with us. And I know that is true for Talat Hamdani, who is here with us tonight, and who lost her son, Salman Hamdani, on 9/11. There will always be a hole in our hearts for the men and women who perished that day.

“After the attacks, some argued – including some of those who lost loved ones – that the entire site should be reserved for a memorial. But we decided – together, as a city – that the best way to honor all those we lost, and to repudiate our enemies, was to build a moving memorial and to rebuild the site.

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The right’s surefire strategy to win the mosque showdown: the ‘name and blame’ game

August 23, 2010 by Peter · Leave a Comment 

I’ve explained why I support the Ground Zero mosque even though Muslims were my mortal enemies in Lebanon and I’m a longtime lower Manhattan resident who lost friends in the towers. I’ve also cautioned against slandering 9/11 victims’ loved ones, emphasized that this is a matter of principles, not people, and argued that whatever we call the project, those principles don’t change. Still, I’m almost certain opponents of the mosque/community center will win the debate.

Here’s why: the rightwing noise machine is extremely adept at creating controversies around individuals.  From Fox, Drudge and rightwing blogs to websites, talk radio and elected officials, they are masters at superbly orchestrated takedowns based on manufactured outrage. Remember Shirley Sherrod? Van Jones? Dan Rather?

The two-pronged anti-mosque strategy is crystal clear: find the most egregious name for the project, one that pushes emotional buttons, then hammer away at the individuals associated with it, searching for an angle to destroy them. Thus the laser-like focus on the Imam behind it, Feisal Abdul Rauf, and on his wife, Daisy Khan. Witness the Wall Street Journal today:

A leader of a planned Muslim community center near Manhattan’s Ground Zero compared opposition to the project to the persecution of Jews, in comments that could add to the controversy over the center’s proposed site.

Opponents will likely win this argument because they are forcing proponents, media and neutral parties to play by their rules. Case in point: we are now arguing about whether it’s “Park51″ or the “9/11 Mosque” (Sarah Palin’s choice), whether Rauf is an extremist or moderate, whether or not his wife is a radical. We’ve seen one media profile of Rauf after another, but few in-depth pieces about the Constitutional principles at stake.

Once you’re on the right’s turf, they are halfway to victory. It doesn’t help that Democratic leaders have been completely muddled on an issue of basic rights.

From day one, proponents should have been firm about one thing: this is not about names or people, it’s primarily about core values. That’s not to say that the individuals behind the project are completely irrelevant – of course not – but that the principles must come first.

I return to Mike Bloomberg’s pitch-perfect speech:

Muslims are as much a part of our city and our country as the people of any faith. And they are as welcome to worship in lower Manhattan as any other group. In fact, they have been worshipping at the site for better, the better part of a year, as is their right. The local community board in lower Manhattan voted overwhelmingly to support the proposal. And if it moves forward, I expect the community center and mosque will add to the life and vitality of the neighborhood and the entire city.

Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure, and there is no neighborhood in this city that is off-limits to God’s love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us can attest.

I doubt the Ground Zero mosque will ever be built there, but I hope proponents stand firm on the ideals and avoid getting sucked into the right’s ‘name and blame’ game.

Behold America’s future…

August 22, 2010 by Peter · Leave a Comment 

The first minute of this video should give every American pause – it is a stark illustration of what the future might look like: explosive confrontations along religious and racial lines.

UPDATE: Apparently, the subject of the crowd’s wrath is a union carpenter.

This reminds me of an experience I had at an Iraq war protest. A small pro-war group started waving American flags and hurling insults at marchers. When I heard the words “traitor” and “Saddam sympathizer,” I walked over and calmly asked where they were when I was under fire in battles with Muslim fanatics in Lebanon. Silence.

It’s easier to practice intolerance than tolerance. The latter takes compassion and self-discipline, the former is based on crude emotions and ignorance.

I’m not going to slander a 9/11 victim’s family

August 18, 2010 by Peter · 13 Comments 

I’m not about to tell the family member of a September 11th victim that their opposition to a mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero is due to xenophobia, racism, or narrow-mindedness.  Attributing those motives to every person who opposes the mosque is something I refuse to do.

All I can do is make my case:

I’m an American citizen with a Jewish-American mother and Christian-Lebanese father. I was raised in Beirut during the height of the Lebanese civil war, where Christians and Muslims slaughtered each other by the tens of thousands. I lived and breathed the same kind of horrors we see in Afghanistan and Iraq, endless carnage, indiscriminate killing of civilians, shelling of entire neighborhoods, kidnappings and car bombs. I ducked and dodged the grim reaper on too many occasions.

As a teen, I was conscripted into the Lebanese Forces, a Christian militia, and served for three years. My opponents were Muslims of all nationalities, Syrians, Palestinians, everyone who was attacking the Christian enclave north of Beirut and endangering my family, my friends, my life. It was a matter of survival. Muslim friends who I grew up with became mortal enemies. A country that was the model of interfaith co-existence was torn apart at the seams.

I moved to New York in the 80s and have lived here ever since. My daughter was born in New York. For years, my home has been the beautiful riverfront neighborhood of Battery Park, a two minute walk across from Ground Zero. On the day the towers came down, my wife and I were headed to WTC Building 7 for a meeting. We were delayed by a phone call and then switched on the tv and realized we weren’t going anywhere and that the world we knew had changed forever. I lost friends in the towers and I watched my city get amputated. Every time I walk near the site, I look up in pain at the hole in the sky. New York will never be the same to me. I will never forget.

When I heard about the plans for a mosque, my first thought was Lebanon and the beautiful days of coexistence before the war. Tolerance and compassion are things have we to work at. Living our values and principles is not an easy thing. My love of our Constitution and the freedoms enshrined in it come from my time away from the USA. I want to be true to its ideals, to practice what the Constitution preaches. I believe supporting the mosque accomplishes that goal.

And what’s more, placing a mosque next to Ground Zero strikes me as a direct affront to the vicious murderers who took those precious lives. Few things are more satisfying than letting a violent perpetrator know that their violence has had no effect and that it has only strengthened our resolve and stiffened our spine. I want the terrorists to know that nothing they do will make us relinquish our values, that we honor the lives lost by sending a message that anyone can worship anywhere in America. We are not defending people, we are defending principles.

I see that as victory and I hope those who oppose this mosque see it that way too.