Over the weekend, I read that Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind cleric found guilty of plotting to wage a “war of urban terrorism” against the U.S. (New York City in particular), had died in prison.
The news sent me hurtling back to 1995 when I was a reporter on the New York City desk for the wire service, United Press International. I was a general assignment reporter, covering all kinds of madness and mayhem in the big city and I loved everything about it.
The white cardboard reporter’s notepads, my laminated press pass issued by the NYPD, giving me the right to cross police and fire lines wherever they formed (I never tired of that thrill). I thrived in the reporter scrum that formed every time a crooked politician was indicted, a new mayor or police commissioner was inducted, a fire tore through a landmark. I sat in the front row every day throughout Woody Allen and Mia Farrow’s custody battle (“Neither of them is fit to raise a flea!” the late great Newsday columnist Murray Kempton exclaimed to the press corps one day), calling in my story to the rewrite desk each afternoon. It was the best gig in the world.
So I was mildly aware of Abdel Rahman’s big trial in federal court, but I didn’t give it too much attention at the time. Not my beat. I was a NYC reporter and back then terrorism was still something that mostly happened in foreign cities and countries I couldn’t pronounce. And I wasn’t exactly a student of geopolitics.
But after the conviction, the sheikh’s attorney, Lynne Stewart, reached out to UPI to offer us the exclusive opportunity to be the first news organization to interview him in prison. I have no idea what my editor’s reasoning was at the time, but suddenly, he points at me – the gig was mine.
I’m embarrassed to admit that aside from reading a few of our library clippings about the trial, I was wholly unprepared for the interview and treated it like I was interviewing a car thief. All I knew was that this man had been plotting to blow up the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, the George Washington Bridge, the United Nations and the Manhattan headquarters of the FBI.
It obviously never happened and September 11, 2001 was still six years in the future, so at the time the plot seemed pretty outrageous. I think in the back of my head, I thought he was more smoke than fire, and just wanted to register his rage at the U.S.
So off I went to prison. First I met Stewart, a disheveled civil rights attorney who seemed permanently befuddled. She was later convicted of smuggling messages from the sheikh to his followers in Egypt, but at this point, she functioned more like a media flack.
The first thing that struck me was that the sheikh wasn’t wearing dark glasses. It startled me, and for a second I stared right into the milky blindness of his eyes. From then on I mostly kept my eyes down and rattled off a list of questions culled from my editor and the reporter who covered the trial. The sheikh was polite and not at all fiery, as I’d imagined.
At one point, I cleared my throat and hesitantly asked him if he was guilty. He laughed a mirthless laugh and said, “Of course not.” Well, at least that’s what his translator told me he said. I remember thinking, “I am much too gullible for this kind of reporting” because he sounded so sincere and I wanted to believe him. Believe that this was some huge conspiracy cooked up by the United States against a poor man of God, just trying to tend to his flock and let off a little steam about the U.S.
I left no wiser than I came. I filed my story, which was immediately boosted to the “A” wire – wire service parlance for very important national news. My editor told me I’d done a good job. And the next day I went back to covering everyday NYC mayhem, leaving tangled, confusing world politics for greater minds than me.
Six years later, after dropping my 1-year-old twins at daycare, I watched on TV as the towers came down, and frantically tried to reach my husband who worked a few blocks away. And it suddenly became clear that attacks like the one the sheikh planned were chillingly real.