This is part IV of a series that appear exclusively in Taxi & Livery Times.
The television was constantly on in our house in the period following September 11, 2001. Reports of firemen being found dead or alive were the main focus.
As news stories were filtering to the media, we discovered that a former colleague of my wife had a son who, as a fireman, died that day in an attempt to rescue people from the burning building. My son had a soccer coach who died that day in his office at Cantor Fitzgerald. In fact, the coach lost his brother in-law too that day in the same office. His wife, who was pregnant at the time with their fourth child, had to deal with the loss of her husband and her brother. The citizens of the Village of Rockville Centre and friends of the family were supportive but raising four children without a father is still a daunting task.
While television reports focused on the recovery efforts, the scroll at the bottom of the screen contained the FBI hotline number in case anyone had information pertaining to the attacks. The number of calls had reached tens of thousands by the time Friday had arrived. I was in a quandary. The FBI was not an institution that I trusted, not since the J Edgar Hoover days, as he was later revealed to be a blackmailer of presidents, a denier of the existence of the Mafia, a sexual deviant himself who used sexual material gathered in FBI investigations as blackmail to gain and retain power.
His successors were not much more trustworthy. During the Watergate years, Nixon used the FBI to his benefit by inducing FBI heads, notably L Patrick Gray, to lie to Congress and to head off any investigation in the break-in and subsequent cover-up. In later years, the FBI appeared to be little more than an investigatory arm of the Justice Department, rather than a crime prevention organization.
This was not an ordinary situation though. I had information that I felt could potentially be pertinent to the investigation of the World Trade Center attacks. Sending money to refugee camps in Afghanistan might have been a cover for financing the operation, I fantasized. Whether it was a legitimate fantasy or not was not my call to make. Let the investigators worry about that.
So, now I had to think about how I was going to call the FBI. Since my lack of trust prevented me from calling from a home telephone, I decided to drop the dime in a phone booth a few blocks from my house, anonymously. I called the hotline number, and on Saturday morning, I kept getting a busy signal. I tried for an hour off and on but couldn’t get through.
I imagined that the tips were coming in droves. I imagined that Anti-Muslim and Anti-Arab prejudice was probably responsible for a large part of the tips. The ignorance of the public regarding our nation’s many Islamic citizens was astounding.
Even the Police Commissioner showed his ignorance. During an abbreviated taxi strike a couple years prior to 9/11, the Police Commissioner characterized the strikers, and the headlines blared in the NY Post, as “Taxi Terrorists.” The association he was trying to affix to the public’s mind was the use of the word terrorists, which, at that time, was generally coupled with the word “Arab.”
The irony was not lost on me that there were few Arabs in the taxi business, many Indian Sikhs and Pakistanis, neither of which were Arabs – and to call them terrorists was to play to the ignorant prejudices of the public.
The media never called him to task on this matter. It was apparently okay for taxi drivers to be portrayed with such a loaded association such as terrorist.
So, later in the day I tried a couple more times to call the FBI hotline and was unsuccessful. My wife and I had dinner out that Saturday night, and I contemplated how to handle the matter. When I awoke the next morning, my laziness trumped my fear of being victimized by the authority figure, the FBI. So, I dialed the number (an anachronism now that we have push-button phones).
When I heard the phone ringing on the other end, I was relieved and excited at the same time, finally able to unburden myself and be a patriot at the same time. At last, a voice answered the line. It was a soothing female, southern accent, and I felt like she was going to be receptive to listening to my story, the information being valuable or not.
I explained my occupation, gave her my name and phone number, maybe my address as well, and that I loaned money as a credit union employee to NYC taxi owners, secured by their medallions, and this one particular fellow had received funds and reported that he had sent the money to refugee camps in Afghanistan. By now, it had become clear that Bin-Laden was encamped along with his Al-Qaeda comrades in Afghanistan, and that they were taking responsibility for the attacks.
The lady from the FBI asked me to repeat the story again, either because she didn’t quite understand, or my New York style was too fast for her southern style. I was only too happy for her to get it right. So, patiently I went through the story again, and at the end, she again stated that she didn’t quite get it.
Finally, after patiently going through the story again for the third time, maybe in a more streamlined fashion, she said now she understood. But she then asked me to do her a favor.
What kind of favor could she possibly want from me? I was fearful I was setting myself up to be victimized by giving her this information – no good deed going unpunished, as they say. But I was overplaying my fears. She then sheepishly asked me if I could spell Afghanistan. At this point, I now understood why the country was in this position. Ignorance is not bliss – particularly when it comes to FBI agents or call takers.
By the beginning of the following week, I decided it was necessary to inform my supervisors at work to alert them as to my activities regarding the phone call to the FBI. Ultimately, the FBI, if they followed this lead, would request or subpoena information, and I wanted to be honest and upfront about how and why the FBI got wind of the information.
My fear of termination was minimal. How could the credit union fire a patriot such as myself? I noted to myself that it was interesting that no one else among the “distressed loan committee” saw fit to contact the authorities with the same information I had – especially my direct supervisor, James Earle, who gave the impression of being a super-patriot, pro-NRA, served in the military… and a guy who seemed genuinely worried about the direction of the country.
Check back next month for part V.