To take a cross-community pulse of the city at this significant moment, City Limits Weekly Editor Karen Loew sat down for a conversation with Queens resident Adem Carroll, a Muslim who is chair of the dialogue-building Muslim Consultative Network and, through the Islamic Circle of North America, provided emergency legal and financial help to more than 850 people detained in post-9/11 legal sweeps; Brooklyn resident Sunita Subramanian, who led the Disaster Relief and Recovery Program for Lawyers Alliance for New York and now heads its Immigrant Communities Initiative; and Manhattan resident Madelyn Wils, who is and has been a leader of numerous downtown community and arts organizations.
MADELYN WILS: Well I’m a former chairperson of Community Board 1. I was the chairperson during 9/11 and a few years after. I was a member of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation which was in charge of rebuilding. And I’m the president of the Tribeca Film Institute for a couple of years. I’m a member of a lot of the boards downtown: cultural, civic. I am a native New Yorker.
SUNITA SUBRAMANIAN: I’m the senior staff attorney at Lawyers Alliance for New York. I’ll tell you a little bit about my background. I was born in India. Grew up in the U.S. and … I haven’t lived in New York for that long relative to a lot of people. I moved here in the year 2000, so just one year before 9/11. I left a law firm shortly after 9/11 to join Lawyers Alliance to spearhead Lawyers Alliance’s initiative, 9/11 initiative to the non-profits that were affected by 9/11. Essentially we provide business law services to non-profits who serve for low-income new Yorkers. And the 9/11 initiative was one of several that we had ongoing, it was obviously very timely for the non-profit community as well. I currently in my role at Lawyers Alliance spearhead our efforts to work with organizations serving immigrants.
ADEM CARROLL: I’m a native New Yorker. I grew up on 11th Street, across the street from the hospital and Ray’s Pizza, and my father lives down on Prince Street. And yeah I guess that’s part of my identity. I’ve been Muslim since 1988 and I began studying about Islam after I joined the Peace Corps and I chose to begin practicing instead of just study and it’s still a work in progress. But interestingly somehow I find myself in this position doing a lot of work since 9/11 with the community, also downtown there’s a Sufi community and that’s one of the groups that connected with us as far as religion and faith. So I feel a lot of different kinds of roots downtown and currently where I was working, at Islamic Circle of North America since the week of 9/11. I burnt out really about three to four months ago and I’m now working kind of as a consultant on the Muslim Consultative Network. And I’m also working right now with the Save Darfur coalition … [seems] to be continuing my response to 9/11 in one way or another.
Experiencing Sept. 11, 2001
MADELYN WILS: I’ll try not to speak that long but my entire life was changed on that day. … I walked my son to school that morning. I lived six blocks north of the World Trade Center. He went to school at P.S. 234, three blocks north. And I was campaigning for the present Council member, with him in front of the school when the first plane came over our heads. And it was flying very low, it was probably no more than150 feet above our heads. And it was incredibly loud and there was a shrieking noise and then it went up and we watched it go into the first tower. And it was one of those things you just never forget. It took probably three years before I didn’t think about the subject of the day. … We stood there in shock and not knowing how to react. And then the second plane came. It came from around the southern part of the harbor so I just saw it coming into the eastern side of the second building and at that point that blast was a lot more, was much more explosive and it looked like a huge bomb that went off … when the second plane hit you realized this is an attack. This is not a mistake, this is not a sort of a one-off, this is something major. We all went into the school, we took all the kids down into the basement … My son was eight at the time, he saw people jumping out of the windows. … My husband was in Las Vegas… and I have three kids and I couldn’t locate my other two kids. One was in Brooklyn, one was in a different school. You know it was just a very, a bad day. To say the least … My eight year-old was in shock and unable to move. He was like in a fetal position on my bed so I couldn’t leave him to walk to 27th street to get my other kid. And so [Councilmember] Alan Gerson actually went and got him for me and brought him to Houston Street. So I went and left my child with my neighbor and went to Houston Street and I could see the blockade starting to get set up on the street. They set up blockades because they were afraid the gas lines were going to explode on our block. They weren’t letting anybody back into the neighborhood. But not everybody was evacuated. … That was 9/11 in the neighborhood you know. Anyway I spent four days outside the community with two of my children — my other one was in Brooklyn, couldn’t get back. … I had to make this very conscious decision to come back and I came back on the fourth day, to meet with some community members on Canal Street. And about 600 people showed up. And it was sort of like everybody was just kind of seeing who was still there, who was still alive. Who was… it was just sort of like a very kind of desperate situation.
About 600 people showed up and we had another community meeting with all the public officials that I held the day after that, about 1,000 people came. Onto the basketball court. From my perspective it was like, I have to get my community back in shape and on my own particular block with flattened police cars and fire trucks and everything was white covered with dust. … The most terrifying part for me was that the City of New York did not recognize that anybody lived down there. And they were more concerned with feeding the rescue workers, finding victims, and dealing with the victims’ families. And the first week no one wanted to say anything about that. But after the first week when there was no food, there was no water, there was no electric, there was no gas, there was no phone. … I mean I still had a huge amount of anger toward Giuliani, because I think he — besides being the culprit in the whole air quality issue which one day will come out when he’s running for president — I really feel that he very much neglected his own.
SUNITA SUBRAMANIAN: I was on my way to work at the time. And I found out because people were talking about it on the subway, and I heard a woman describe a plane going into one of the towers and I looked inside the newspaper I was reading and it wasn’t in the newspaper and I thought surely she’s talking about a movie. … And more people got on the train at that point were talking about the fire and the towers. So then I quickly pieced it together what had happened. And that was really how I found out about 9/11. When I arrived at the other end of my train ride, I was at my office which at the time was midtown on the corner of Central Park, and it’s a big high-rise building. And I remember being afraid to go inside but I didn’t know what else to do. Because I knew that the plane had hit these towers and I didn’t know if they were going to or not. And it’s interesting because as I said, months after 9/11 I left my law firm to pursue public interest law. And it turns out that my [future] colleagues that were at the Alliance were actually gathered that day in our executive director’s office. And you could actually see — his office faces south. And they watched the towers burn and collapse. … A terrible, terrible day. I lived in Brooklyn at the time like I do now, and I couldn’t get back home because of subway service. I was unable to get in touch with friends … It was a strange experience. I count myself lucky that I didn’t have anybody nearby, I didn’t lose any friends or family.
ADEM CARROLL: Just the day before I had gone to the Swedish Institute thinking I’m gonna change my life and become a massage therapist, and I was really considering it. And then 9/11 woke me up, just waking up hearing WINS. And before the other plane hit I was on the phone talking to my family and I said, oh you should turn the radio on. And my mother said, oh what’s that noise overhead and it was the second plane. And everybody was literally talking about it… and my father went up to his roof and saw the second one hit. And I didn’t see any of the impact, I didn’t have a TV. I just listened to everything on the radio, and I went down to Steinway Street and some of the Arab stores there have big TV’s where they watch Al-Jazeera and stuff like that. So I would go up and see it from the roof and then I would go down and watch it on their TV, and it was just strange because there were some people who didn’t even seem to be paying attention and I just couldn’t imagine it. And so I do remember standing up on my roof with my camera and watching the collapse and thinking I didn’t understand what I was seeing, you know I didn’t understand what that was. And then of course one gets into the email, I don’t remember, I didn’t have a cell phone then so I don’t remember the calling part, but that was a lot of my next days: ‘where is everybody?’ And some people I knew had their names on lists of missing but they turned out not to be, and there were all these lists. And then people were saying 10,000 people or more were lost and that was the day I got called by Islamic Circle that had my resume and they said “we need your help,” and basically there were Muslims that had been lost. And they continued to think for years, some of them, that thousands of them were lost. And [Muslims] felt that they had to be proportionately affected. … So you know the first experience was kind of, of the city, and locating one’s family, and then I began to specialize more. And though Islamic Circle did help non-Muslims they tried to specialize in those who were underserved … people who we thought would not be reached. And later on Islamic Circle joined which was New York Disaster Interfaith Services. And I might have spoken at one of their events, I’m not sure. And yeah, they put on some conferences over the years and it’s still going. After the first two or three months really focusing on taking families to the DASC center (Disaster Assistance Service Center) and the pier and various places, and sitting with them in their kitchens and watching their kids say, ‘I’m waiting for my dad, everyday we go to the train.’ You know, strange stuff that families didn’t want to tell their children. And trying to get them served, and after doing that for about three months then I started working on the detainee stuff a lot more.
MADELYN WILS: Well this is the fifth anniversary, so I assume there’s some importance to the five number. But on the first anniversary it was a very profound time for me, I was one of the people who got to read the names and it was certainly just a very impactful day, I went back to the site the second year and then after that I basically decided that I wanted to be alone on September 11th, I didn’t want any interaction with anybody basically. I just wanted to be quiet. And that’s basically how I’ve spent my last three anniversaries. And you know people run here and there, and I’ve been invited to the Sunday President and Laura Bush’s services which I’m not going to for a variety of reasons. But I just think that it’s still a very sad time and I cringe when the press tends to overindulge themselves by creating stories and making landmark gestures, it’s not really necessary, sort of like talking about a hurricane for weeks that never happens. And it’s just over and over the same stories and I find it a little bit tiring at this point. So I think it has to be very personal to each individual. We want to look at where we are today in many different areas, on building, on relations, on air quality. There’s so many areas, where we are in the world, there are so many issues since 9/11, coming out of 9/11. But I just think that again it’s overexploited.
ADEM CARROLL: I don’t know if [the meaning] is changing for me or not. Just a couple of months ago, because I removed myself from my work, I thought you know, maybe I could still get counseling. Because I haven’t gotten any; I’ve tried to get other people counseling. You know, airplanes pass, it affects me and all of that. And I thought, well, let me try some. So I’m sort of realizing that, you know, I’ve been sort of damaged a bit. And everyone was talking about this for years saying expect that. I finally made time to deal with it. And in a way for the last few months I’ve been trying to recognize that. And also I’m not in the front trenches of taking the phone calls getting the families, getting in front of the media. Which I was doing for a long time, and sometimes the folks are very sensitive [but] sometimes they’re camping out in your front office. With 9/11, a month ago the calls started, and we like to speak with them. … I guess as a spokesman, I want to do less, and as someone who’s been affected I guess I’m going to deal with it privately. … I’m really glad that the air quality thing has come out, finally.
SUNITA SUBRAMANIAN: I guess from a legal perspective it’s interesting that this anniversary, it’s also the one year anniversary of Katrina. And those of us in the nonprofit sector try to be helpful with protective laws and sort of share our lessons learned from 9/11 to try to help local communities down there and some nonprofits to figure out how can we address a disaster, how can we help people in a situation where there’s the destruction of facilities, etc. Some of the things that we faced in New York and downtown. So I think the only thing that is good about anniversaries is that it is, for some people, a cause to sit back and reflect on what we have learned, and how far we’ve come.
ADEM CARROLL: I’m glad you brought that up. You mentioned Katrina, I mean Muslim communities are in a place right now because Lebanon was attacked. The way it’s really impacting their ability to think and function clearly. So I think a lot of these things coincide, so last year it was Katrina and 9/11, and this year for a lot of us it’s Lebanon and 9/11. And then of course we have ongoing terror alerts and arrests, whether real or fake or whatever, you know that causes people this fear. So I think that often there are many factors that interact. So when the 9/11 anniversary comes, I think a lot of that stuff comes up. And if it’s, you know, a beautiful springlike day, then you feel kind of weird.
CITY LIMITS: Beautiful early September days are kind of tainted. Do you think of that on a blue sky day?
MADELYN WILS: All the time, yeah, absolutely. Almost all the time I used to think of it. Every time there’s not a cloud in the sky — because I actually remember walking with my son, holding his hand, turning the corner and saying ‘what a beautiful day this is.’ Every time I catch myself saying ‘what a beautiful — ’ it brings me right back there. So I think all of this. I still can’t deal with a lot of noise, I can’t deal with low-flying planes. I mean, I deal with it but there’s still a lot of trauma that doesn’t actually go away. But this is you know, life. I think for me personally I get a lot of sadness out of 9/11 only because I just think that the relations in the world, as bad as they were, have gotten so much worse. And it’s almost hard to imagine now how it can get better. We’ve just gotten so deep into polarization, extremism, ideology. On all parts — America as a nation, the reaction from other countries and other groups. And I just think we’ve gone so far off the deep end. And when I think about 9/11. my personal reflection is where we are today, as a world. Not just as a community downtown, but you know, how did we get here.
CITY LIMITS: It was the beginning of something.
MADELYN WILS: It was the beginning of so much more I think than we could’ve ever imagined. I think 9/11 was the start of a real change in ideology on so much of the world’s part that … the whole idea that there’s something that held us all together seems to be almost disappearing. It’s very hard to figure out how these cracks, how these fissures can be mended at this point. I’m not a pessimist, don’t get me wrong, but September 11th brings that up for me.
CITY LIMITS: Do you feel those fissures, Adem?
ADEM CARROLL: Well yeah, internally as well as externally. The clash of civilizations is being told to us, and it’s being told almost from the beginning that the world changed on 9/11. People have taken it and used it for all kinds of agendas. Whether it’s just self-righteous anger … I just think of immature reactions in my own community. And denial and conspiracy theories and things that are like that. Or you know this increase in executive authority and all of this stuff that’s dealing with trying to give the Geneva conventions away and this whole power grab is frightening. The papers try to do stories on Muslims; sometimes they have happy Muslims and human interest stuff, but there’s so much that’s wrong. I have had things written about me in the last few years that are just completely made up. … For some of them there can be no good Muslim, there can be no moderate Muslim. Or they define it in an impossible way, and so I found myself in one camp but also wanting to be a bridge, you know. I find that the position of moderate Muslim, or bridge, has been so difficult to maintain credibility or maintain any traction at all.
I’ve dealt with the fallout and the backlash through certain human beings and seeing how that affects them and their families. And I carry it with me. So it’s not so much the trauma of the families who lost somebody, although I feel very moved by them, I stay in touch with some. But there’s folks who have had someone disappear for a couple of months and I’ve been through some of that with them. And then they were located but they were in isolation at MDC (Metropolitan Detention Center) or another place. One [deportee] just got in touch with me last week. I hadn’t heard from him for three years, he had just met another former detainee in Egypt who was in touch. And they know about the class action suit that Center for Constitutional Rights is doing and so he was wondering what’s up with that. But he wrote me a little bit about the trauma that he’s been going through and that he wouldn’t leave the house for six months after he was deported, and he mentioned a few things in a very brief but a very real way. And it was so resonant because almost all of them went through it. That they couldn’t hold a job for a year and a half after they went through isolation. You know some of them lost their spouses, or they just went through so much. Truck drivers and convenience store owners who were really just swept up in the paranoia after 9/11 — and I’m not saying that there are not bad guys out there. But don’t be naïve. A lot of folks right after were just swept up. And that was hard for me, and what sort of inspired me to … keep looking on the justice angle through human rights. And I’m glad that there are people who care even if they’re not in the White House. And we really need to continue to do human rights education because those polls out there which say that a lot of Americans don’t care and they think torture is okay, it’s very troubling. And so in the backlash it’s not just people throwing coffee on someone in the subway because they’re wearing a headscarf, it’s not just the bad looks, bad things that people say. It really goes very far.
“Clash of Civilizations”
MADELYN WILS: Let me ask you a question, what do you think about some people who say that it would be really a positive step to have more moderate Muslims speak out? What do you personally think about whether, in the United States and elsewhere, people could teach others that Islam is a peaceful religion, that it doesn’t teach the kind of extremism and Jihad that we read about all the time? I mean do you have any frustration that this message isn’t getting across? Because from my own personal point of view I wish we heard more of this.
ADEM CARROLL: Yeah, I understand that and some of our folks are frustrated because they feel they’re trying to get the message out and no one’s listening. There’s a disconnect. And I don’t want to let them off the hook, the community … is not centralized and it’s been very weak in some respects. So I don’t think it’s been effective getting its message out. But I think the Islamic Society of North America had a petition and there were hundreds of Imams that signed it against terror, and who knows about that and also it came a little late.
We’re all ashamed, you know? … So we’ve got a long way to grow really and in terms of getting the message out, I think part of it is on us and part of it is on the media not buying into the clash of civilizations as the story. And being able to sell that as something they want to pay attention to. Metro sections might go for it but it doesn’t go beyond that. … We do have issues with justice in foreign policy and so forth but one has to be able to put that forth in a responsible way. Where it’s not inciting hate or creating division. A lot of Muslims are very reasonable but it’s the irresponsible statements and emotional stuff that gets passed around and unfortunately there’s always been that. It’s going to be hard to really end it. … You can’t equate someone who wears traditional clothes with fundamentalist. Fundamentalism isn’t militance. And militance isn’t Al Qaeda. So you have so many degrees of separation between that perception of risk or danger and the actuality. I know there are some good people who are there, and they’re ready, but they lack funding and they lack infrastructure. And again moderate Muslims might not be completely Westernized, they might not be completely uncritical of Israel, there might be things that people don’t like about them. But as long as that can be accepted, because you see that they’re basically invested in this country.
SUNITA SUBRAMANIAN: There is this backlash that hasn’t just affected Muslims, it’s affected people who look Muslim, people who look Middle Eastern, people of South Asian descent. I think post-9/11 what I saw in the non-profit community is there was a real recognition of that. And what has happened since 9/11 I think is you see various community-based organizations coming together on certain issues. And trying to support the Muslim community and the South Asian community. I think you saw a lot of cohesion recently with the immigration law reform, which was infused with issues of national security. And you saw various groups, certainly different communities coming together on that issue. I think I’ve seen sort of our clients come together on the issue of special registration — the special registration program that had been implemented by the Department of Homeland Security. In sort of educating the public about the impact of this program on the Muslim community. And on the other communities that are affected by it. How effective has the program been etc, etc, post-9/11. I also saw community-based groups whether they were serving immigrants or just the larger population ensuring that everybody who needed services, who was eligible for services could get them. And just doing the best that we could to get cultural sensitivity language concerns addressed. There was the “unmet needs table,” there was an effort to make sure that those who perhaps were in the country without status could get whatever services they were eligible for, because they are eligible for some services. So one of the things that I thought was nice despite the backlash was I thought in my own community and in the non-profit community in which I work was this sort of effort to come together and support one another. And you know that wasn’t probably always there and there may well have been instances where that was not as successful. There may have been people who didn’t feel that way. But I think as a whole my perception is there were efforts made and there was communication.
CITY LIMITS: And has that lasted?
SUNITA SUBRAMANIAN: I think it has. I think these issues have lasting effect. I don’t think that things have changed. I think this past year a lot of my clients were focused on the immigration reform and the focus was protecting the rights of all immigrants. But certainly I think the protests against the national security type provisions that were imposed… people share a common view on those type of things, understanding the sort of discriminatory effects of those types of things.
CITY LIMITS: People have an awareness or sensitivity that they wouldn’t have had six years ago.
SUNITA SUBRAMANIAN: Hard to say, but maybe.
ADEM CARROLL: I love to see people joining community boards. It’s just so grassroots, and I feel that would be a way in for people to feel connected and learn a few things.
MADELYN WILS: Well I feel obviously that people who join groups that have some diversity in them just get people to become more interested in each other as human beings. I happened to have been in Israel as the war broke out, I was right on the Lebanese border as a matter of fact. But it was funny, when I came back I sort of thought, well I seem to be attracting the attacks. I will try not to take it personally. Incidentally I was also in Morocco, which is very closely tied to France so they have the French news, when the Muslim riots broke out in the Arab ghetto. So it’s been interesting, but my point is that I see so much more isolationist behavior amongst Americans, amongst Europeans, amongst Muslims, amongst Jews. And it’s very, very frightening, I don’t think I ever had the experience that I had recently of fearing the eradication of Israel. Because there’s so much hatred against Jews in general right now. And I just feel that there is so much hatred for each other based on religious beliefs, which are also tied to cultural beliefs to some extent, although not entirely. And I don’t think I ever saw that so much in this world as in recent times. Some things I hear are so radical in people that you wouldn’t think of as radical. Just people talking about other people, other religions in a way that makes me feel that no one is really safe.
CITY LIMITS: Is that felt even in our wonderful, melting-pot, vibrant, everyone’s-welcome city?
ADEM CARROLL: I guess it depends on whether one is engaged in and oriented towards engagement with diversity. And there are some folks who I think are not, and I think after 9/11 for a while I saw a lot more interest among Muslim leadership in engagement. But some other things have pushed them back. It has been our tendency to practice very locally. Most people’s affiliations are at their mosque and it’s a comfort zone. They’re not necessarily activists, in a sense of social justice as are others. And that’s fine, we have different roles to play. But the leadership, to be leaders, hasn’t always come forth. I think that I noticed in the last year more withdrawing again. I don’t know what it is, it’s just the steady pressure of the media. Which carries a lot of negativity. A lot of us are now thinking — to other people we’re just tainted.
You know that you need to think about youth…. I just came from a presentation on Darfur at the Muslim student center at NYU. And there’s some real leadership going on at that level. And that influences too, no doubt. But so mostly they’re kids who not only do they know computers better than I ever will know, but they also know how things work in a much more sophisticated way than their elders. And so I think it will be very important to pay attention to young people. Not just in Muslim communities but in all these communities that are disconnected. And young Jewish kids, I have no idea where they’re at in terms of that. I think their community seems very fearful, the synagogues have metal detectors and all this stuff.
MADELYN WILS: After 9/11 when I became president of the Tribeca Film Institute, which was technically a 9/11 charity … I wanted to do a film program with American and Arab students. And I actually did the program in Morocco and then in New York where I actually brought over a bunch of students from, to start small, Hunter College. And we were guests of the prince of Morocco and we set up a two-week workshop with Muslim students in Morocco and thought maybe one day we would expand but anyway it was an amazing two weeks. But interestingly enough — and obviously Morocco is known as a moderate Muslim country — But when we asked the students in Morocco what they thought American students would be like, they all said ‘arrogant.’ And in fact the students, within 24 hours you couldn’t tell who was Moroccan and who was American. … So I was thinking that what we really need to do is programs like that right here in New York, you know, that if people are becoming more insular. What needs to happen is to push people out of their shells and into more of a diverse atmosphere where they can learn from each other and with each other and teach each other.
ADEM CARROLL: I mean people do interact in the subways, but that isn’t enough really. I mean we assume that, ‘ok, we’re in the streets, we mix, we’re not in cars like those people out there,’ but it isn’t enough. I think that you’re right.
SUNITA SUBRAMANIAN: In terms of what the non-profit community did and what lawyers in New York did … I was impressed at how quickly the nonprofit community came together after 9/11 to rush to the pier, whether it was to rush to the pier and staff the various groups there. You know non-profits did a lot of collaboration — they shared information, they put together these uniform consent forms to make sure that the clients they served were comfortable and sort of agreed to the sharing of information. And that was our effort to make sure we were able to keep track of who was being served and what services they were getting. There was a lot of collaboration between groups who already were giving referrals… To the extent that they’re not able to meet individual needs, to send them to somebody who can. Again I mentioned the cultural sensitivity issues and language issues. There was a lot of sharing I think and in terms of the bar, there was a tremendous effort immediately after 9/11 to convene in and to figure out, ok, how can we coordinate and help as many individuals as we can. … I think it’s remarkable if you think of the number of … different interests and competing concerns and people prioritize certain issues differently. And I think that despite all that there was a lot of good.
Downtown and Us
MADELYN WILS: The truth was that downtown was becoming the place to live before 2001. It was growing in leaps and bounds before that, and it’s changed dramatically, it’s just that nobody knew it, nobody recognized it. I called the White House after 9/11, to the EPA office, and asked if they would test the air in people’s homes, and they said, “You mean people live there?” And that was the reaction that I got. … My place in the world was really to represent the residents and the small businesses after 9/11. The fact that there were 14,000 small businesses down there and 4,000 went out of business right away, I think is a huge, huge number. And most of these businesses are people that are n