Skying from Fort Lauderdale to New York City the other day, I was shocked when my seat neighbor, a college student from Seattle, turned and said: "Last time I flew in a plane, I didn't land." Clearly a clever punch line was coming, but what? I sheepishly played the straight man. "Really, how's that?"
"I went skydiving."
Funny though it was, it inevitably prodded our recollections to the events of September 11, 2001, and the student pilots who trained to fly laterally without descending. The tale of that hijacking and kamikaze bombing has been in the news this week, with a tempest brewing in the teapot of Kent, Connecticut, an ordinarily sleepy bedroom community outside New York. The municipal government has become entangled with one of the locals in a squabble unlikely to reach a happy ending.
Here is the synopsis. Mister Peter Gadiel of Kent lost a son, James, on that terrible day. James was just twenty-three years of age, first job out of college, working for the investment house of Cantor Fitzgerald. His office was on the 103rd floor of the first building and it is presumed he died instantaneously when the aircraft struck.
Eight years hence, the acting mayor (known as First Selectman) of Kent approached the elder Gadiel with news of a planned memorial for his son. They were favorably disposed toward the notion of honoring the hometown boy who had been among the tragic fallen.
Mister Gadiel was asked to propose a text for the inscription on the plaque. He wrote: "James Gadiel (1978-2001), a gentleman and a gentle man, murdered by Muslim terrorists." This language was greeted with dismay. Uh, uh, no can do. The mayor, Ruth Epstein, said it was not in keeping with the town's persona to disparage any ethnic groups.
Gadiel has taken his case to the public and the press in the New York area is abuzz with the controversy. He argues that this is a worthy battleground because there has been a determined effort to obfuscate the identity of the killers. For the most part, conservative talk-show hosts are backing the dad, lauding him for telling it like it is.
It seems to me that this calls for what lawyers describe as a good compromise, one in which neither side is happy with the result. Frankly, both sets of players are taking indefensible positions. It is not possible under any balanced system of social order and expression to immortalize the phrase "Muslim terrorists" as an identifier of guilt. If the terrorists cited a religious motivation, or if we suspect one, it is absurd to label the act as intrinsically Muslim in some way. This is true even if a sociological argument could be made blaming the religion for an insufficient revulsion toward violence.
By the same token, whitewashing the guilty parties in the name of ethnic tolerance is both unjust and dangerous. We do not need to cover up for those who destroy in the name of some species of virtue.
The correct path is to write that James was murdered by the terrorists of al Qaeda. This is accurate in naming the reprehensible. At the same time it does not attack Islam per se or any nationality. Al Qaeda is a know international entity, even if a non-governmental one, and can certainly be called out by name.
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