Death was closing in. From the 85th floor of the World Trade Center, Andrew Zucker could see it coming as if in slow motion. For months he’d been e-mailing friends, cornering them in shul, telling about the mid-morning conversations dissolving into screams; rescue workers rushing into smoke; someone’s torso over there, his leg over there; a cascading of broken glass; loved ones dialing cell phones, unanswered; a pair of shoes; a baby carriage standing eerily alone into the afternoon; a sky with ash in lieu of clouds until night fell and all was ghostly and still.
No, Zucker wasn’t a prophet, just a Jew who was paying attention. He wasn’t talking about New York on Sept. 11, 2001 but Islamic Jihad’s bombing of Sbarro’s in Jerusalem, Aug. 9, 2001, nails and bolts flying, 145 dead, wounded, bloodied, orphaned and mourning. He warned about Islamic fascism — before most others used the term — from Gaza to Afghanistan. He compared the Taliban to the Nazis, before most people knew who the Taliban were.
Has the war changed us? As Gertrude Stein might say, before the war began the war began. A Palestinian sprayed bullets into seven people atop the Empire State Building in 1997. A Lebanese man shot Ari Halberstam to death on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994. An Egyptian murdered Rabbi Meir Kahane in a Manhattan ballroom in 1990, before that same killer, El Sayyid Nosair was convicted for his part in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Someone named “Osama Bin Laden helped pay for the legal defense of the man who shot militant Jewish leader Meir Kahane,” reported the Daily News later, but “the FBI had never heard of Bin Laden at the time” of Kahane’s murder. The police had been saying Kahane’s murder “was the work of a lone gunman with no affiliation to terrorist groups.”
For a brief moment after 9/11, it seemed that everyone sounded like Zucker. Andrew Sullivan, then-senior editor of The New Republic, wrote that “something like Hitler is back … Vicious anti-Semitism is now the official doctrine of most Arab governments and their organs of propaganda … The sobering truth is that somewhere in my head, I knew all this already. So why did I look the other way? … We in the West simply do not want to believe that this kind of hatred still exists; and when it emerges, we feel uncomfortable. We do everything we can to change the subject.”
David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, wrote in 2001, despite the differences between Hitler and Bin Laden “it is fair to say that they are joined by a sure instinct that hatred of the Jews is a timelessly convenient instrument of propaganda and cohesion.”
In 2011, Remnick is now optimistic because “the death of Bin Laden, coupled with the events of the Arab Spring, augured at least the possibility of a new age. Violent Islam no longer seems inevitable or indomitable.”
Next week there will be a debate at New York University with the proposition: “It’s Time to End the War on Terror.”
Oh, there was still terror — lone gunmen, of course — and synagogues, here and there, erected concrete barricades to thwart car bombers, but just five years after 9/11, no one symbolized the anti-Semitic threat as much as Mel Gibson.
And yet, on the very same day as Gibson’s drunken rant about Jews to a policeman — June 28, 2006 — reported widely across America, the stuff of late-night comedy monologues, there was a minor story out of Seattle, hardly reported elsewhere. A seemingly ordinary man named Naveed Haq, after doing a random Internet search for anything Jewish, drove 220 miles to Seattle and stuck a gun into the back of a teenage girl to gain entrance into the offices of the Seattle Jewish Federation, where he shot one woman, Pamela Waechter, to death, seriously wounding five others.
Holding a gun to the head of a pregnant woman, Haq dialed 911 and told the police that he was a Muslim-American whose people were getting pushed around by Israel. “This is about Jews,” he later told detectives.
The coverage in the Los Angeles Times revealed a new sanitized politically correct sensibility about radical Islam. Its headline? “Jewish Center Shooter’s Motives Remain A Mystery.” One commentator suggested his motives were misogyny; all his victims were women. Another commentator mockingly wrote that Haq “has become the poster child of Islamophobes around the world,” the Islamophobes now being the objects of more derision in sophisticated circles than Muslims were the objects of fear.
The “mystery” of Haq’s motives was not unlike the “mystery” of what motivated Faisel Shahzad, the foiled Times Square Bomber of 2010. The Nation magazine suggested he was “either a lone nut job or a member of some squirrelly branch of the Tea Party, anti-government far-right.” Mayor Mike Bloomberg suggested the bomber could be somebody “who doesn’t like the health care bill or something. It could be anything.” In fact, the bomber was linked directly to the notorious terrorist and anti-Semitic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a once-moderate iman in the United States, now operating out of Yemen, who was also linked to the Christmas Day Bomber, and the Fort Hood killer, each of whom, we were originally told, acted alone.
Despite the persistence of stories about Muslims feeling afraid, nevertheless, in every year of the past decade, according to the FBI, there have been far more hate crimes against Jews than against Muslims. In every year since 2002, anti-Jewish crime has made up more than 65 percent of all hate crimes in America. A recent study by Pew found that 21 percent of Muslim Americans say there is a great deal or a fair amount of support for extremism in the Muslim American community.
In the end, as always, there is the loneliness of the mourners. Zucker’s son, born five months after his father died, is now 9. None of the kids in his class at an Orthodox day school has any memory of 9/11.
Andrew’s sister, Cheryl Shames, goes to memorials, even to Oklahoma City when the bombing there is memorialized, and this week veterans of Oklahoma City are coming to New York for a gathering of One Heart, an organization co-founded by a survivor of a bus bombing in Jerusalem.
For Shames there is not only 9/11 but the 23rd of Elul, the corresponding yahrtzeit. It is then that she visits the cemetery where Zucker is buried. The forensic people identified Zucker on the night before Chanukah, 2001.
“It seems like it was yesterday,” says Shames. “While driving my daughter to preschool, I had the radio on…” She knew that her brother had been a volunteer fireman. “We knew the type of person he was. He saved seven of the 12 people who got out of his office. He was going back for another when the second plane hit.”
Zucker’s sister and friends say that if he were still here, he’d still be sending out those e-mails of warning, as if to every Middlesex village and farm. “He had this understanding of what was happening before the rest of us,” says Cheryl. “He saw what was happening in Israel,” the canary in the mine.
“We all thought he was crazy,” says Cheryl. “I looked at when his e-mails were sent — at 2 o’clock in the morning, 4 o’clock in the morning, and I’d say, ‘Andrew, what are you doing? You’re not sleeping. You’re consumed by this.’”
Now, whenever the clock says 9:11 “and any one of my kids or me catches it, we scream out, ‘We love you Uncle Andrew.’ Even my twins who never got to meet him. They know all about him. We talk about him all the time.”
He was consumed by this.
For someone, somewhere, death is closing in,