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Dark Mirror

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It seemed like a good idea at the time. I was president of the FDNY Islamic Society, which was embroiled in disputes with the fire commissioner regarding issues that included non-emergency building inspections at area mosques that interrupted congregational services on Fridays. Why not go to the next meeting of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association (UFOA) to raise the issue, I thought to myself, as the union representing officers of the 200 some-odd engine and ladder companies could have some sway over the timing of inspections.

As the next UFOA meeting approached, I began to have second thoughts. I didn’t relish the idea of getting up in front of a packed audience, and the last meeting I attended was a rather raucous affair. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing was also in the back of my mind, and I imagined that more than a few who responded may not be too sympathetic. Despite not knowing what to expect, I felt an obligation to act as a voice for the community.

It was a hot summer night as I left the Grand Central Parkway for the LaGuardia Airport Holiday Inn. The act of looking for a parking spot steadied my nerves somewhat, but my heart still pounded. When I arrived, the room was packed as anticipated and I had the temerity to sit near the front. I scanned the sea of White faces for support, searching in vain for someone I knew from the Vulcan Society, the FDNY fraternal organization of black firefighters. At the time, you could count the number of Black battalion chiefs on one hand, with a smattering of officers in lower ranks.

I couldn’t tell you what they were discussing that night as I was too busy rehearsing in my mind what I would say and when to say it. The floor finally yielded to questions and one hand after another was raised to open a new dialogue. As the meeting neared its end, I felt my own hand shoot up. I was yielded the floor and, with knees trembling, the words spilled out of my mouth; what they were exactly I could not say. The gist of it explained that congregational prayers in Islam took place Fridays around noon and that there had been occasions when building inspections interrupted the services.

It may have been due to the blood rushing around my ears, but the room appeared to hush. I must have looked like a deer in headlights because Pete Gorman, the UFOA president, put me at ease immediately with his voice and demeanor. He looked me dead in the eyes and said, “That is just wrong.” What’s more, he said that the next UFOA weekly bulletin would raise awareness of Muslim congregational services to allow for discretion in conducting routine inspections.

What happened immediately after the meeting was one of the highlights of my career. As I walked to my car, a captain stopped me and said, his voice choked with emotion, that he had no idea about the timing of prayer services in Islam and that he could only imagine what it would be like to have Catholic Mass interrupted by building inspections on a Sunday. There was a silent pause during which we looked each other in the eye, then shook hands and went our separate ways. 

The moment was cathartic and inspired me to reassess my own prejudices toward people with whom I worked for two decades but never really connected with in a meaningful way. I finally sensed a camaraderie missing all that time in a profession that was truly more a calling than a job.

Sifting through the Ashes

Then 9/11 happened. Would the UFOA president have spoken so forcefully, would the captain feel the same in the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse? Not knowing his name or unit, to this day I do not even know if he is still alive. When I viewed photos of the 343 FDNY responders killed in the collapse, I did not see him, so it is possible he may still be alive. As I paused over some of the faces I did recognize, a wave of sadness enveloped me. There was firefighter Vernon Cherry who was on the boxing team with me — we had bumped into each other about a week prior to 9/11 while I was investigating a church fire in downtown Brooklyn.

I had met Vulcan Society activist firefighter Keithroy Maynard at a probationary class of firefighters, where presentations were being made on behalf of the many FDNY fraternal organizations. He struck me as a no-nonsense guy who was determined to diversify the department.

I had occasion to work with Fire Marshal Ronald Bucca, a former Green Beret who was set to retire shortly. Another fire marshal told me that he had seen Bucca racing up the stairwell past the 25th floor while the fire marshal was coming down with an injured occupant from one of the towers. Firefighter William Henry was in my probationary class and worked in one of the elite rescue units.

>Flickr/edcleve

There was Father Mychal Judge, an FDNY chaplain who responded warmly to my request on how to obtain a Muslim chaplain. Then there was Deputy Commissioner William Feehan who was a named defendant in the Islamic Society suit to obtain a Muslim chaplain and to whom I felt a special duty to chaperone his body from the morgue. In his 70s, he had a distinguished 40-year career in the FDNY and was a decorated Korean War veteran.

Differential Relations

As I attempt to work through the dehumanization required to fly planes into buildings and trucks into crowds, I find myself returning to that moment in the parking lot. Neuroscientists are steadily mapping out the modularity of the brain, and the discovery of mirror neurons suggests there is an area of the brain wired for empathy and compassion.

Between the alif and double lam of Allah lies the unseen field of intensities that inform how we originate and recreate reality to ourselves. That is to say, G_D functions best when viewed as a reciprocal relation, one of many within ourselves, between others and with our environment. Thus, to say that paradise lies in the shadow of swords does not mean finding salvation in murdering innocent people, but in dropping our defenses in a manner that creates an opening for the immanence of recognition and expression.

For me, paradise means accessing the differential relations that bear witness to the genesis of the moment, one moment at a time. But the 9/11 hijackers saw it differently.

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  • About the autor
    Kevin James

    The author is a former firefighter and supervising fire marshal with the New York City Fire Department who responded to Ground Zero on 9/11. He was one of several Muslim Americans profiled in the PBS documentary "Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet". He was accepted into the Revson Fellows at Columbia University and graduated from Columbia Law School as a Stone Scholar. He interned with the Center for Constitutional Rights as an Ella Baker Fellow in 2005 where he assisted in fighting racial discrimination in the FDNY on behalf of the Vulcan Society as well as finding legal counsel for Guantanamo detainees.
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