A man is but a product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes. – Gandhi
New York, November 5, 1990
The TV stations are updating the story constantly. An hour ago, while my sister, brother, and I slept away the last seconds we had of anything remotely resembling a childhood, my mother overheard the name Meir Kahane and looked up at the screen. The first thing she saw was footage of the Arab gunman, and her heart nearly stopped: it was my father.
The dark suits have so many questions that it’s like my mother is caught in a hailstorm. She will remember two questions above all others: What is your current home address? And, Did you know your husband was going to shoot Rabbi Kahane tonight?
She tells the policemen the truth about the shooting: She’d known nothing about it. She hadn’t heard a single syllable. Nothing.
She abhors talk of violence. Everyone at the mosque knows better than to agitate in her presence.
She answers a barrage of follow-up questions, head high, hands motionless on her lap. But all the while one thought is banging inside her head like a migraine: She must go to my father. She must be at his side.
Finally, my mother blurts out: “I heard on TV that Sayyid is going to die.” The dark suits look at each other, but do not answer. “I want to be with him. I don’t want him to die alone.” Still no answer. “Will you take me to him? Please? Will you take me to him, please?” She says it again and again. Eventually the dark suits sigh and put away their pencils.
My mother rushes to my father’s bed. Ibrahim drifts in slowly behind her to give her space. Baba is unconscious, his body badly swollen and stripped to the waist. He’s attached to a half-dozen machines by wires and tubes, and he’s got a long, stitched-up wound on his neck from where the postal police officer shot him. It looks like there’s a giant caterpillar on his neck. Nurses work hurriedly at my father’s bedside. They are not happy about the interruption.
My mother reaches out to touch Baba’s shoulder. His body is hard and his skin so cold that she recoils. “He’s already dead?” she asks, her voice trembling. “Ya Allah, he’s already dead!” “No, he’s not dead,” one of the nurses says, not bothering to hide her annoyance. The family of an assassin. “And keep your hands off him. You can’t touch him.” “He’s my husband. Why can’t I touch him?” “Because we have rules.” My mother is too upset to understand, but later she’ll decide that the nurses were afraid she would tear out the tubes and wires and let my father die. She puts her hands at her sides now. She leans down to whisper in his ear. She tells him that it’s okay, that she is there beside him, that she loves him, that—if he’s just been holding on for her—it’s okay, she is there, she loves him, he can let go. When the nurses are not looking, she kisses his cheek.
A doctor tells my mother that my father is going to live. The doctor is the first kind person she has encountered all night and—comforted by his empathy, uncomplicated and humane—she cries for the first time. He waits for her to gather herself before he says anything more. The doctor says Baba lost most of the blood in his body, and was given a transfusion. He still has a bullet somewhere in his neck but, because his carotid artery was nearly severed, they didn’t want to risk probing around for it. The fact that the bullet never exited my father’s body is what saved his life.
My mother consoles herself with two things. One is that, whatever possessed my father to commit such a monstrous act, he will never hurt anyone again. The other is that his survival is a gift. On both counts, she is wrong.
There’s a reason that murderous hatred has to be taught—and not just taught, but forcibly implanted. It’s not a naturally occurring phenomenon. It is a lie. It is a lie told over and over again—often to people who have no resources and who are denied alternative views of the world. It’s a lie my father believed, and one he hoped to pass on to me.
What my father did on November 5, 1990, decimated my family. It tipped us into a life of death threats and media harassment, nomadic living and constant poverty, a thousand “fresh starts” that almost always led to something worse.
His was an infamy of an entirely new kind, and we were collateral damage. My father was the first known Islamic jihadist to take a life on American soil. He worked with the support of a terror cell overseas that would ultimately call itself Al-Qaeda.
And his career as a terrorist was not over yet.
In early 1993, from his prison cell at Attica, my father helped plan the first bombing of the World Trade Center with his old associates from the Jersey City mosque.
On February twenty-sixth of that year, a Kuwaiti-born man named Ramzi Yousef and a Jordanian named Eyad Ismoil carried out the plot, driving a yellow Ryder van full of explosives into the parking garage below the WTC. Their horrible hope, and my father’s, was that one tower would knock over the other and the death toll would be stratospheric. They had to settle for a blast that tore a hole one hundred feet wide through four levels of concrete, the injury of more than a thousand innocents, and the deaths of six people, one of them a woman seven months pregnant.
Between my mother’s attempts to protect her children from the awful knowledge of their father’s actions and my own little-kid desperation not to know, it would be many years before I internalized the full horror of the assassination and the bombing. It would take me just as long to admit how furious I was with my father for what he had done to my own family. At the time it was too much to take in. I carried fear, anger, and self-loathing around in my gut, but couldn’t even begin to process them. I turned ten after the first World Trade Center bombing. Emotionally, I was already like a computer powering down. By the time I was twelve, I’d been bullied so much at school that I thought about suicide. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I met a woman named Sharon who made me feel like I was worth something—and that my story was, too. It’s the story of a boy trained to hate, and a man who chose a different path.
I’ve spent my life trying to understand what drew my father to terrorism, and struggled with the knowledge that I have his blood in my veins. By telling my story, my intention is to do something hopeful and instructive: to offer a portrait of a young man who was raised in the fires of fanaticism and embraced nonviolence instead. I can’t make any grand claims for myself, but all our lives have themes, and the theme of mine so far is this: Everyone has a choice.
Even if you’re trained to hate, you can choose tolerance. You can choose empathy.
The fact that my father went to prison for an unfathomable crime when I was seven just about ruined my life. But it also my made my life possible. He could not fill me with hate from jail. And, more than that, he could not stop me from coming in contact with the sorts of people he demonized and discovering that they were human beings—people I could care about and who could care about me. Bigotry cannot survive experience. My body rejected it.
My mother’s faith in Islam never wavered during our trials as a family, but she, like the vast majority of Muslims, is anything but a zealot. When I was eighteen and had finally seen a sliver of the world, I told my mom I could no longer judge people based on what they were—Muslim, Jewish, Christian, gay, straight—and that starting right then and there I was only going to judge them based on who they were. She listened, she nodded, and she had the wisdom to speak the six most empowering words I have ever heard:
“I’m so tired of hating people.”
My father is now in the United States penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, having been sentenced to life plus fifteen years with no chance of parole for, among other things, seditious conspiracy, murder in aid of racketeering, attempted murder of a postal officer, use of a firearm in the commission of a murder, use of a firearm during an attempted murder, and possession of a firearm. To be honest, I still feel something for him, something that I haven’t been able to eradicate, some strand of pity and guilt, I guess, though it’s thin as spider’s silk. It’s hard to think of the man I once called Baba living in a cell, knowing that we have all changed our names out of terror and shame.
I have not visited my father in twenty years. This is the story of why.