It may be two years after September 11, 2001, but the terrorist attacks have become part of the landscape of a country at war. Suspicion has replaced an open, liberal democracy with no one surviving the shock. New York still reels, the attack like "a suppurating wound." Muslim Americans have become the national scapegoat, their plight symbolic of the small earthquakes that seem to be convulsing throughout the country.
The Jury (formed to decide on the 9/11 memorial) has endured two rounds of voting, the conversation ragged, snappish and repetitive. For Claire Burwell, the victims' representative, the choice is simple: a walled garden guided by rigorous geometry, of two broad, perpendicular canals and steel trees, made from the salvaged scraps of the destroyed buildings. Paul Rubin, a retired investment banker and now the Jury's chairman, is well aware of the concerns: “It’s too soon for a memorial, the ground is barely cleared.”
Claire, who lost her husband, Cal, gradually surfaces as the natural leader and champion. She favors the garden
despite the other members thinking it’s a bit too sentimental and contrived. Amid the champagne and popping corks, the euphoria and clamor, the anonymous submission number is released, but it brings no pleasure: The name of the artist is Mohammad “Mo” Kahn.
Like a line “sharp as a jet’s contrail,” the reaction from the Jury is immediate. Fear of repercussion along with a repulsive, reptilian distrust replaces confidence. People are afraid
- “we’re up against a handful of zealots” - yet the Jury must be practical. Their job is to get the memorial built
despite the growing battle of egos. Paul - never imagining this sort of contingency - must consider the possibility of a public uproar, while Claire notes the sense of ownership of the victims' families to the site.
Perhaps the choice of artist will “send a good message” that in America it doesn’t matter what your name is. There
are in life rarely if ever right decisions, and never perfect ones - only the best to be made under the circumstances. Mo is detained at LAX. Caught in the web of the agents' insinuating questions, he struggles to maintain his self-respect. Like everyone else, he
is overwhelmed by the magnitude of mourning around him, but he’s adamant that he
is an American citizen like everyone else.
Controversy flashes through Waldman’s story. From Sean Gallagher, a handyman who lives with his parents and who lost his brother, to Asma Anwar, an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant, terrified that once she leaves America she will never be able to return, to a muckraking journalist who watches transfixed as her Mystery Muslim scoop enters the network news cycle, to a self-seeking governor who figures the issue could catapult her to national prominence, the emotional uncoupling of husbands, wives, friends, and those who lost relatives overlap and meet.
Is Mo giving form to a design so powerful that Muslims are willing to kill for it? He refuses to withdraw his submission as people bicker on a scale unforeseen. In pages riddled with fear, hostile family members compete with an angry media, forcing us to question the very nature of tolerance and what it really means to live as a Muslim and an American in this new, terrifying world.