Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Don't Let the Terrorists Win

We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition. In this enlightened Age and in this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the Laws. . . . – President George Washington, January 27, 1793.

America was founded on the principle of religious liberty and has become a sanctuary to millions who have fled religious persecution. The Statue of Liberty proudly bearing its torch in New York Harbor, we remain a symbol to the world of religious freedom for all. From our humble beginnings, we embodied a multiplicity of religious beliefs and divergent sects. The varied religious backgrounds of the original colonists helped to ensure that religious diversity, church-state separation, and the free exercise of religious worship would be a part of our national identity. Although the vast majority of American citizens are Christians, it is no accident that the Constitution makes no mention of Jesus Christ, contains no references to God, and discusses religion only in the context of prohibiting governmental intrusion. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” declares our Constitution, and “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” References to “our Creator” and “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence were specifically formulated to apply to the followers of all religions, not just Christian ones. The men most important to this nation’s founding – Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin, and Hamilton – each were products of the Enlightenment, skeptical of organized religion, and disdainful of religious fundamentalists.

It is thus with deep sadness that I have watched the vitriolic ignorance and bigotry unfolding against the proposed Islamic Center and mosque two blocks from where the World Trade Centers were decimated on 9/11. Intended as a symbol of the resilience of the American melting pot, the 15-story structure is to house an Islamic Community Center with a board comprised of members of different faiths. The center’s visionary and leader, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, has worked for decades to promote understanding and tolerance among people of different faith traditions, and has done much to promote interfaith relations. Originally named the Cordoba House, according to The New York Times, after the city in Spain, where "Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together centuries ago in the midst of religious foment," the project faces opposition from a variety of sources. There are the usual suspects – Sarah Palin, Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, and other right-wing Republicans – who have repeatedly proved willing to exploit ignorance and fear. Most of their opposition is unabashedly on religious grounds, with little attempt made to disguise their collective disdain for Islam. More disturbing, however, is the public position of the Anti-Defamation League, which under Abraham Foxman has perhaps, finally, lost its soul.

Some opposition comes from the likes of extremists and blowhards, such as the former head of the Tea Party Express, Mark Williams, who referred to Allah as a “monkey God” (he later apologized), and Ed Rodgers, author of Islam and the Last Days, who hallucinates that President Obama is a Muslim who secretly supports Islam’s goal of world domination. Rodgers absurdly argues that those who support building a mosque near the site of Ground Zero are committing treason. As far as I can tell, Rodgers’ religious illiteracy, unfortunately, is shared by millions of Americans and this ignorance is exploited for political gain by the likes of Palin, Gingrich, and Tennessee’s lieutenant governor, Ron Ramsey, who has suggested that Muslim Americans do not have a constitutionally protected right to worship in the United States, because Islam, in his view, is a cult, not a religion.

That most of the opposition to the proposed Islamic Center is based on Islamophobia -- namely, hostility and fear of Muslims generally -- is confirmed by protests in other parts of the United States. In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for example, hundreds of protesters, urged on by Ramsey and other Republican candidates, are fighting plans for a large Muslim center near a residential subdivision, not exactly the “sacred ground” of the 9/11 attacks. In Temecula, California, a local Tea Party group picketed Friday prayers at a mosque that plans to build a new worship center on a vacant lot nearby. In an attempt to offend the prayerful worshipers, some protestors brought dogs with them, because Islam considers dogs ritually unclean. And in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, some so-called “Christian” ministers have been leading a fight to prevent a mosque from opening in a former health food store that had been purchased by a Muslim doctor.

This does not sound like the America I know and love, the one that preaches acceptance of all religions and that respects the rights of its citizens to worship wherever they find spiritual fulfillment and sustenance. The America revealed in the comments and opposition to the mosques throughout the country is an America of intolerance and religious bigotry. To oppose the Cordoba House, or Park51 as it is now being called (from its address), because it would house an Islamic Community Center and a mosque two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks is not only mean spirited and wrong, it’s un-American.

To disallow the Islamic Center solely on the grounds that it will house a mosque suggests unfairly and inaccurately that all Muslims are terrorists or covert supporters of terrorism; that Muslims are incapable of generosity, compassion, and universal love. If anyone opposing the center had evidence that the backers of the project are radical Muslims who support jihad against the West and wish to glorify 9/11, I will join their efforts to shut it down. I have instead heard only that it would be offensive to build a mosque near the “sacred ground” of the 9/11 attacks. By that logic, it would be offensive to allow a Christian church to stand near the memorial honoring the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing because Timothy McVeigh and his co-conspirators were self-proclaimed Christians.

The most shameful episodes of American history revolve around discrimination against groups who simply share the same race, religion or national origin – slavery, the Jim Crow South, the internment of Japanese-Americans. Since 9/11, many American Muslims have experienced discrimination and worse simply because they practice their faith. When no distinctions are made between moderate and radical religious practitioners, blame and derision are hurled upon an entire people. This is indecent, immoral, and contrary to American values, American justice, and the American way.

Abe Foxman of the ADL may be correct in declaring that family members of the 9/11 victims are entitled to irrational feelings, but promoting intolerance and caving in to popular sentiment does nothing to help us heal and it gravely betrays our values. The families of those who died on 9/11 deserve our sympathy and respect but, as the editors of The New York Times noted, “it would be a greater disservice to the memories of their loved ones to give into the very fear that the terrorists wanted to create and, thus, to abandon the principles of freedom and tolerance.” Victims’ families are entitled to their feelings, and I do not for a minute suggest how one should feel or grieve in their circumstances. But for the ADL to rationalize religious discrimination and intolerance by tying it to the pain felt by the victims’ families is shameful and inexcusable. Something is terribly wrong when the very organization that, historically, has battled discrimination of all kinds – from racist venom during the worst days of the Ku Klux Klan to more subtle forms of anti-Semitism advanced by university quota systems and the discriminatory policies of exclusive country clubs – tacitly supports prejudice against Muslims.

Even worse is the ADL’s short-sightedness. As Fareed Zakaria recently explained after returning a humanitarian award received five years ago from the ADL, “If there is going to be a reformist movement in Islam, it is going to emerge from places like the proposed institute. We should be encouraging groups like the one behind this project, not demonizing them. Were this mosque being built in a foreign city, chances are that the U.S. government would be funding it.” A two-year study of the relationship between American Muslims and terrorism, conducted by Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and the University of North Carolina, found that contemporary mosques act as a deterrent to the spread of militant Islam and terrorism, and that many leaders of American mosques put great effort into countering extremism by building youth programs, sponsoring anti-violence programs, and scrutinizing teachers and texts. The Islamic Community Center and mosque planned for 51 Park Place would include a 500-seat auditorium, a swimming pool, art exhibition spaces, bookstores, restaurants, and a range of programs modeled on the YMCA and the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan. As a broad-based attempt to give voice to moderate Islam, its proximity to Ground Zero is its strength – a symbol of American religious freedom to counter the intolerant extremism that victimized Americans on 9/11.

I would expect resistance to religious diversity and displays of intolerance in places like Saudi Arabia, where it is illegal even to build a one-room church. Part of what makes the United States great is that we are a nation that could welcome a mosque near the site of 9/11, a powerfully symbolic act that resonates inclusion and openness. To resist the planned center, which is dedicated to span the divide between Muslim and non-Muslim and to create a national model of moderate Islam, is not only un-American, it is counter-productive. We need to build bridges among faiths, not widen gaps.

In 1790, President Washington attempted to ease the anxieties of a Newport, Rhode Island, synagogue by declaring that even historically persecuted religious minorities were entitled to equal protection of the law. The United States, said Washington, “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” We need to be reminded of our unique American history, for if bigotry and ignorance are allowed to prevail, the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 will have won the final battle.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Conversations With My Cab Driver

If you have made mistakes, even serious ones, there is always another chance for you. What we call failure is not the falling down but the staying down. – Mary Pickford
“I’ll get you there in plenty of time,” the cab driver said, sensing my urgency. I just left a meeting at a Pittsburgh law firm and was in jeopardy of missing my scheduled flight home. “My name is Darryl,” he added politely.

Darryl was an African American man with short-cropped hair, slightly balding with patches of gray, who looked to be in his mid-40’s. Outgoing and personable, he possessed a touch of street and appeared to be in his second or third phase of a life lived on the harder edges of town.

“Oh, damn,” he said, “I must have left my phone back at the cab station. Would you mind if we stopped by the station to get it?”

I warily asked if it was on the way, reminding him I was in a hurry and concerned about missing my flight – “you know, with security and all.” He said he knew a shortcut, and then relented, sensing my concern about the time. He gestured with his hand, as if throwing an invisible object. “I’ll get it tomorrow. I don’t want you to miss your flight.”

He drove a block or two, but I could see he was distracted. I told him that it was okay to get his phone. “If it’s on the way, it shouldn’t be a problem,” I said.

Darryl appreciated my self-sacrificing gesture. “Ahh, man, thank you. I promise it will only take a minute. I’ll run right in and we’ll slip out the back and bypass all this traffic.” He said his co-workers would laugh at him again, and he wondered whether he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. “I forget stuff all the time now.”

I assured him not to worry. “I can’t remember what I had for lunch,” I said. “But it’s only short-term memory loss. It’s natural, not Alzheimer’s. It affects everybody as they get older.”

“I sure hope you’re right,” Darryl said. Me too, I thought.

Darryl sped around corners and cut through side streets. We passed a middle-aged Hispanic man walking under a bridge on the side of the road, limping with a cane. Darryl waved to him and shouted apologetically, “Sorry, man, I don’t have time to stop.”

“I would normally pick him up and give him a ride. He works at the cab station. I’ll explain later we were in a hurry.” Darryl looked worried and his concern for the man seemed sincere and genuine, a compassionate gesture amidst the cold realities of urban hacking.

A minute later, Darryl turned into the parking lot of the cab station. “I’ll be right back.” He got out of the cab and ran, or tried to; he had the familiar gait of a once limber man, now full of stiffness and aching joints. He was dressed in shorts and a tee shirt, with white socks and black sneakers. He’s old school, I thought to myself.

Darryl returned to the cab and thanked me. “I don’t know how we ever got along without these things.” He drove off and weaved his way in and out of traffic, explaining all of the shortcuts and tricks of the trade that he has learned over the years, bypassing the rush hour congestion, which on the west side of Pittsburgh is caused by the traffic converging on the Fort Pitt tunnel beneath Mt. Washington.

I commented on the area’s scenic beauty. The rolling green hills of western Pennsylvania surround Pittsburgh’s triangular skyline, which is situated at the meeting place of the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela Rivers, each peppered by historic steel-framed bridges. The city of Pittsburgh has come a long way from its soot-filled history of steel mills and smokestacks and now boasts of a renewed downtown business district with parks, shops, and sports stadiums, a performing arts center and two major universities.

“I love this city,” Darryl said. “I’m here for good.” Thinking he had come to Pittsburgh from elsewhere, I asked Darryl where he was originally from. “I’m from Pittsburgh,” he said.

“Oh,” I replied, “I thought maybe you had moved here from somewhere else. So you were born and raised in Pittsburgh?”

“Yeah,” he said, though I sensed a slight hesitation.

I mentioned that one of my daughters almost went to the University of Pittsburgh. In learning that I had a daughter – “Actually, I have two,” I corrected him – he wanted to know what I thought of Ben Roethlisberger, the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers accused in March of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old college student. I was no fan of Roethlisberger, I assured him. Darryl noted that Roethlisberger has a reputation for being arrogant and rude, and that he expected restaurants to comp him on meals and treat him like the spoiled, pampered athlete he is. We discussed how celebrities and sports figures too often let their fame take control of their lives and affect how they treat other people.

Darryl asked me about the OJ Simpson case, wanting my honest opinion. “He was guilty,” I said. “The evidence was overwhelming. One of the strongest murder cases I have ever seen.” Darryl agreed. He offered that Ray Lewis, another pro football player gone bad, also was guilty of murder, even though he, too, evaded the charges. “All black people know he’s guilty," he offered, "he’s a murderer.”

I didn’t know much about Lewis’s case, I said, only that two people were stabbed to death after getting into a brawl with Lewis and two companions following a Super Bowl party ten years ago. We identified other apparent injustices and discovered that we had more in common than our different backgrounds and appearances at first might suggest. Darryl volunteered, “Black people have to stop using the race card. I mean, man, we have a black President.”

Darryl asked what type of car I owned and if I had ever used jet skis on the water (I had not). “Oh, man, you got to do it.” He had rented them on a trip to Aruba once. "Man, it was a trip.” I told him I would try to go there someday.

Although we had dropped the topic of where he was from several miles back, Darryl sought to re-visit it. “Actually, there was a period of time I lived in Washington, D.C. Back in the 1980’s”

“Oh yeah? So did I,” I said, excited about our common history. I had spent thirteen years in Washington, I told him, “In the eighties and nineties. Where in Washington did you live?”

“Well, I used to be involved in some bad things,” Darryl acknowledged. He glanced at me in the rear view mirror. “I worked for a big drug lord when I was there.”

“You mean Rayful Edmond?” Who else could it be? I thought. Rayful Edmond was The Drug Lord in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. He was responsible for the epidemic of crack cocaine that hit the streets of the nation’s capital during the 1980’s and caused its reputation as the murder capital of the United States. His drug organization allegedly is tied to over 400 murders.

“Yeah, man, how’d you know?”

I told him about my days as a prosecutor in D.C., when I tried drug dealers, murderers and rapists. I said I knew the prosecutors who tried Rayful Edmond, which at the time was a daily front-page story in the Washington Post. “I know all about Rayful Edmond.” I said.

“I worked as muscle for Rayful,” Darryl volunteered. “He used to have me collect drug debts for him. And if someone didn’t pay, he had me beat ‘em.”

No, shit,” I said, as in, what a small world.

“I probably wouldn’t have told you if I knew you were a prosecutor,” he said, a smile and nervous laugh betraying his glaze through the rear view mirror. “Good thing I didn’t run into you back then.” It was as if we discovered we once played for opposing teams, division rivals back in the day; as if he played for the Red Sox and I for the Yankees, former adversaries reflecting on our overlapping pasts.

Darryl explained how Rayful moved thousands of kilos of cocaine and ruthlessly enforced his code of silence; how they supplied Mayor Barry with crack and women, and how the fast life had grabbed hold of him for a few regretful years. Darryl never knew his father, and he had dropped out of school at sixteen. He fell in with the wrong crowd and followed some of them to the streets of DC, where Rayful took them under his wing.

Darryl assured me that he is a changed man, ashamed of his past. “I’ve turned my life over to Him,” Darryl said, pointing up. “I am a different person than I was back then. My life is good now. I have no interest in ever going back.”

Whatever his past transgressions, Darryl now was a man with a conscience, a working man who worried about his customers and co-workers. I did not ask if he had spent time in prison, and he made no mention of it, but I sensed he had, that his time away from Pittsburgh had been significant, his return a time of renewal and a fresh start.

Although we occupied the same space for only 45 minutes, I sensed that Darryl was a man who had truly reformed his life in remarkably positive ways.

As a prosecutor for nearly two decades, I accumulated many tales of redemption and second chances, stories that paint the world in multiple shades of gray, complexity and nuance, not the simplistic black and white, good versus evil world portrayed by Hollywood. Most criminal defendants, I discovered, are young men who have taken wrong turns in life; who lack valid role models, or any role models, certainly not a father. Often raised by a grandmother responsible for the lives of several other children, they live in a sub-culture that devalues education, responsibility and conventional means of success, all of which takes a back seat to fast money, flashy cars, and the lure of the underworld. Drugs and gangs are the ticket to the good life. But when the glitz and the easy life fade from view, when accountability takes root, they are just young men with the same hopes and dreams as everyone else; the desire to have people love and respect them, a chance to live life with legitimacy and respect. And like the rest of us, they need to find their way and for someone to give them a chance.

Somewhere along the way, Darryl got a second chance and grasped it. He now is a proud man who has embraced the American dream, works hard, and performs his job with professionalism, care and courtesy.

Twenty years ago, Darryl and I were on different sides of the drug war; he could have been any one of the thousands of young black men who came to court charged with drug dealing, or gun possession, or worse, violence, part of the cycle of mostly black-on-black crime that has plagued every city in America. Today, Darryl is a man redeemed, a living example of the triumph of the human spirit. He uplifted my spirits and, I think in a small way, I uplifted his, vindicating his choices later in life that have led him to a safer, more secure place.

The great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in this, that man and maid, freed of all false feelings and reluctances, will seek each other not as opposites, but as brother and sister, as neighbors, and will come together as human beings. -- Rainer Maria Rilke
We reached the airport in plenty of time. I thanked Darryl, shook his hand, and wished him the best. “This was a fun ride,” he said. “I enjoyed meeting you. Come back to Pittsburgh soon.” He told me where to go once inside the airport. I stood momentarily on the walkway and waved goodbye, then watched as he drove his cab into the sunset, back toward Pittsburgh and a renewed life.