New York’s Tower of Unity

What would be a fitting memorial for the victim of the September 11 attacks?

October 8, 2001

What would be a fitting memorial for the victim of the September 11 attacks?

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, before the 110-story Twin Towers were built in the early 1970s, New York City had a different tall building as its most recognizable landmark — the United Nations headquarters.

At the time, the gleaming steel and glass skyscraper at the edge of the East River represented a cherished ideal of all nations of the world coming together — and resolving their conflicts in a civilized way.

Of course, this ideal seems to have been buried in the ruins of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Indeed, the first reaction by many people in the United States has been to retreat into Middle America.

I was recently in a focus group of a dozen New Yorkers discussing a new advertising campaign by Marriott, the hotel chain. Marriott is hoping to tap into Americans’ sudden reluctance to fly and to go abroad.

Using a series of celebrity television spots, Marriott is promoting its downmarket hotel and motel chains, such as the Marriott Courtyard and Fairfield Inns. Those hotels are typically located in such un-touristy places as strip malls and highway exits. The company is hoping to entice Americans to take short, cheap driving trips into the heartland.

Yet, New York is a mini-United Nations in its own right. And the diversity of the city’s population is suddenly more visible in the aftermath of the attack. Or at least Arabs and Muslims are.

New York has over 100,000 people of pure Arab ancestry, an increase of 37% since 1990. Yet, before the World Trade Center bombing, they blended in seamlessly with the rest of New York’s population, where foreign-born residents now make up at least 20% of the total.

Recently, however, New Yorkers have become aware that the overwhelming majority of the city’s yellow cab drivers are Muslims or Sikhs from Pakistan, Afghanistan, India or Bangladesh.

They now see, as if with new eyes, that many groceries in midtown are owned by Arabs, that coffee carts on the sidewalks are operated by Afghans — and that there are plenty of kebab stands throughout the city.

In fact, the busboys in restaurants, the supermarket cashiers, they all receive an extra smile, a friendly glance of support. All Americans know that open-minded immigration is the essence — and backbone — of this society.

At the same time, at airports Arab-looking people and those wearing traditional Muslim garb do get extra scrutiny from police and security personnel.

And yet, despite fears of “sleeper” terrorists burrowing deep into American society, most New Yorkers seem to go out of their way to be nice to Arabs and Muslims in these trying times.

They are making a particular effort not to cast unfounded suspicions on innocent people — just because they are of the same ethnic origin or religious faith as the terrorists. They are trying hard to disassociate themselves from the ugly harassment incidents that have taken place in the aftermath of the terrorist attack.

Reports about investigations into the September 11 hijackings and terrorist attacks in New York and Washington show to New Yorkers that the rest of the country is, in fact, very much like them.

FBI agents, fanning all around the country, found thriving — and growing — Arab, Middle-Eastern and Muslim communities everywhere in the United States. There are, in fact, some 1 million persons of Arab ancestry living in the country. And, as of 2001, 5 to 7 million Muslims were living in the United States.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the foreign-born population, at 28.4 million, is the largest ever in American history. It roughly equals the total number of people living in Canada.

The foreign population of the United States increased by nearly 10 million over the past 10 years alone — and makes up 10.4% of the total. Not since 1930 did America have such a large share of immigrants.

New Yorkers have also caught up remarkably quickly with all the new background knowledge one needs to have because of terrorist attacks. In order to be fully conversant, they scan local channels and radio stations, which still provide saturation coverage of the subject.

Conversations at work, in restaurants and at dinner parties now touch on such previously esoteric issues as 19th-century British efforts to conquer Afghanistan’s northwest frontier, the finer theological differences between Shi’a and Sunni Islam — and the money transfer system called “hawala,” or trust, which has been in use in the Middle East since the Middle Ages.

In this respect, New Yorkers’ learning curve has been very similar to that of U.S. President George W. Bush. Before being elected, Mr. Bush was criticized for his ignorance of foreign affairs.

Famously, when asked by a reporter to name the leaders of India, Pakistan, Chechnya and Taiwan, Mr. Bush only managed to recall the first name of Taiwan’s Lee Teng-hui.

The Bush administration came into office with little interest in the outside world — and next to no desire to learn. It did focus on immigrants, promising for instance to ease naturalization for some one million Mexicans who have been living in the United States illegally.

Mr. Bush was even reluctant initially to travel to Europe and showed few skills in international diplomacy. All that has also changed as Washington works to build an international coalition to fight terrorism.

Now, India and Pakistan — and their leaders — will be key members of that coalition.

In the aftermath of the terrorist strike, many people have been talking about building a fitting monument to the victims of the attack. Defeating terrorism — to prevent such attacks from ever being repeated — would probably be the best monument the victims themselves would have wished for.

Although it was much maligned by many Americans in the “old” (pre-September 11) world, the United Nations headquarters building represents the ideals and aspirations which provide a suitable roadmap to the future — not just of New York City, but the entire world.