This is the second installment of a story by Matthew Bracken, which is being serialized here in several parts.
Previously: Part 1.
Update: This installment has also been posted at Western Rifle Shooters Association.
Piss Christ? Piss Koran!
Part Two: Morning Light
by Matthew Bracken
At seven minutes after six, Mike closed his notebook and put the bottle of apple juice behind his pack and near the bottom of his poncho shanty. Then he took a Sony portable AM/FM radio the size of a cigarette pack from a cargo pocket of his trousers. It already had a wire for a single ear bud wrapped around it. He switched it on: it was preset for WNYR-FM.
Jerry Conroy was talking over his show’s lead-in bumper music. “Folks, if you’re just tuning in, we have a major situation happening near 6th Avenue and 53rd, right across from the BCA television network building in Manhattan. If you were listening to this show last Friday, then you already know about the Serrano exhibit that’s opening today at the Modern Art Museum. If you’re not up to speed, Andres Serrano is the artist who created the infamous Piss Christ. Well, today there’s a man sitting up on a construction crane across 6th Avenue from the BCA building, and, he’s threatening to create some new art of his own if the Serrano exhibit opens up this morning. Brooklyn Mike, are you still there?”
Mike Dolan removed the ear bud, and picked up his flip phone. “I’m here, Jerry.” He looked down at the screen of his iPhone. Charlie Thorn was staring intently, saying nothing, and then the BCA camera cut back to its shot of him up on the crane. Then a still picture of Jerry Conroy appeared with the caption, “WNYR talk radio host Jerry Conroy.”
“Mike, can you explain to our listening audience what you’re doing up there?”
“Well, Jerry, like you just said, it’s about the Serrano exhibit.”
“Folks, if you didn’t already see it on BCA a few minutes ago, Brooklyn Mike is threatening to douse a copy of the Koran in urine if the Serrano exhibit opens up. Do we understand that correctly, Mike?”
“You got it, Jerry. If they show the Piss Christ at the MAM, then I’m going to create the Piss Koran up here.”
“Mike, if you do that, you have to know that millions of Muslims around the world are going to be very, very upset.”
“Then that’s their problem. Almost nobody seems to object to the Piss Christ, so why should the Koran be out of bounds? I mean, if we all have the freedom of expression, why shouldn’t I be free to create my own art? The mayor said that we had to respect Serrano’s artistic vision and his right to free expression, so why should the Koran be off-limits?”
“That may all be true, but let’s be practical. Let’s be realistic. You have to know there’s going to be a terrible reaction to your stunt. And the responsibility will lie with you.”
“With me? Jerry, last Friday you asked why Christians and Jews were just expected to take this kind of abuse like sheep, but we couldn’t say one word about Islam, or bombs would go off. So you gave me the idea, Jerry, you did. So why don’t you have to share some of the responsibility? How far back does this responsibility thing go? I mean, is there still free speech in America, or not?”
“But if you go through with this stunt, come on, Mike, you know that a lot of people are going to be hurt. A lot of people.”
“Why is that? I’m not threatening to hurt anybody. I’m just going to create a new work of art — just like Serrano.” Mike checked his smart phone again. The still picture of Jerry Conroy was across from him in the corner of the screen.
“Do you understand all of the ramifications of what you’re doing today, Mike?”
After a pause, he said, “Yes, I believe that I do.”
Conroy sighed. “Well, Mike, are you willing to take some questions from callers?”
“Okay, folks, first up is Reverend Samuel L. Peterson, pastor of the Faith Tabernacle Mission. Reverend Peterson is also on the board of the New York Interfaith Council. Reverend Peterson, go ahead.”
The reverend sounded old and frail, and he looked about the same way when BCA put a photo of him up in the corner of the broadcast television screen. “Mike, oh, Mike, are you really going to do this terrible thing? If you do, you are going to cause an unimaginable outbreak of rage across the Muslim world! I fear that many people are going to be hurt! Do you really want to do that? Do you want that on your conscience?”
“Why would it be on my conscience? I wouldn’t hurt a fly. I’m just creating a new work of art, just like Serrano. Nothing more, and nothing less. I can see the Modern Art Museum from here, down 53rd. It was in the news all last week, pastor. Were you planning to come down to protest against it?”
“Uh, Mike, well, I’m, you see, I’m not much of an expert on art — ”
“And you’re just so busy, I know. Too busy to worry about the Piss Christ, or what Christians think about it. But you’re Johnny-on-the-spot today, aren’t you?”
“Michael, may I call you Michael? Michael, two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Mike snorted. “What? Is that the best you can do? Seriously? Reverend Peterson, tell me something. Do you know what a dhimmi is? In English, it’s spelled d-h-i-m-m-i. Dhimmi. It’s an Arabic word. Do you know what it means? Ever hear of it?”
“Michael, I’m not sure what that has to do with — ”
“It has everything to do with everything! Dhimmi! Do you know the word, or not?”
“I must say that I’m not familiar with it. I don’t speak Arabic, and I don’t see — ”
“Well, I suggest that you look it up, you old fool! Lenin would have called you a useful idiot. You’re not leading your flock to verdant pastures, you’re leading them straight to a pack of hungry wolves! You’re a dhimmi, and you don’t even know it.”
After a moment, Jerry Conroy came back on and said, “Ah, Reverend Peterson seems to have dropped off the line. Mike, we’re not going to get very far if you treat our callers this way.”
“I’m sorry the reverend is gone, because I had some more to tell him. ‘Interfaith’ preachers like Peterson are nothing more than Judas goats, leading their flocks straight into the slaughterhouse. He’s doing the work of the jihadists, and he’s too stupid to even understand it.”
“So, what does this dhimmi thing mean, anyway?”
“You don’t know either?”
“No, should I?”
“Yeah, you should. Look it up sometime.”
“Okay, I will. But now we have more callers waiting. If you can keep your temper, maybe we can work this out. Imam Sayyid Qutb of the Al-Hijra Mosque in Brooklyn is on the line. I’m told that Imam Qutb is one of the foremost authorities on Islamic jurisprudence in America. Imam Qutb, you’re on the air. Am I pronouncing your name correctly?”
An elderly male voice, with a strong Middle Eastern accent. “Yes, that’s fine. And am I also speaking to the man up on the crane, the man who is causing all of the worry and consternation today?”
Mike felt a chill of recognition at the name of the imam, and his mosque. “If you say that I am, then I guess I am.” He had purchased his Koran and his other Islamic holy books in the Al-Hijra Mosque’s bookstore. Then he had done some more research into the mosque, and he even read a few short on-line biographies of the well-known imam. Mike scanned his iPhone: BCA news had a still shot of the imam on the screen, with a telephone symbol next to it. Below his photo, the caption read “Imam Sayyid Qutb, National Islamic-American Council.” In the photo Qutb had a long gray chin beard without a mustache, wire-rimmed glasses, and a white Muslim skull cap on his head.
The imam said, “Oh, Mike, don’t do it — I implore you. Please don’t do it.”
“Why not? Last week the mayor said that multicultural diversity is New York’s greatest strength, and he said that we all have to respect diverse views about what constitutes art, so I’m pretty sure that he’ll love the Piss Koran — ”
“Please, don’t say that! I implore you, Mike, don’t say that again.”
“What’s the problem with saying Piss Koran? It’s a free country, isn’t it?”
“Because you must know that the violent extremists will be provoked. What you have discussed doing will be taken as an extreme provocation by Muslims around the world. I can hardly imagine a worse provocation. I fear that great violence will be the result of such a great act of blasphemy.”
“Nobody cares about the Piss Christ except for a handful of intolerant Christian bigots, that’s what the mayor said. So why should anybody care about the Piss Koran?”
“Mike, it’s a sad reality that there are Muslim extremists who misunderstand the underlying peaceful message of the Holy Koran. If you commit this act of provocation, many people will be hurt, that is my great fear. I don’t want to see that happen, and I’m sure that you don’t want to see it happen either.”
“Imam Qutb, are Muslims really that close to committing violence, that they’ll commit violence over a simple work of art?”
“Mike, Muslims are very peaceful people. The Holy Koran says that anyone who kills another human, it is as if he had killed all mankind.”
“Yes, it does say that. In fact, I have a bookmark on that page, so I can read it right now.” Mike took the Koran from the bucket, and opened it across his lap.
“Here it is: Sura 5:32. I even highlighted it. But you only read a little bit of it, here’s the rest. ‘For that cause, we decreed for the children of Israel—that means the Jews—that whoever kills a human being for other than murder or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind. And who saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.’ There are a couple of problems with that verse. It’s an order put on the Jews, not on Muslims. In fact, the nice-sounding part of it was lifted right out of the Torah. And the other problem with that verse is the part about ‘or corruption in the earth.’ In context, that refers to unbelievers who resist the spread of Islam after they have heard the message. Now, I’m not an Islamic scholar, but that ‘corruption in the earth’ seems like a pretty big loophole to me. It sounds to me like that means it’s fair game for Muslims to kill any infidels who resist the spread of Islam. When it was written, it was referring to the Jews in Arabia, and pretty soon after that, they were all slaughtered for resisting Islam. I guess they were all corrupt of the earth.”
“Where did you ever hear such a thing, Mike?”
“It’s in the Koran, and the Hadiths of Mohammed. And Reliance of the Traveller, and some other Islamic holy books that I’ve been studying.”
“Did you read them yourself, or did somebody tell you that? I fear that you have been very badly misinformed. Islam is first and foremost a religion of peace.”
“Then why did you have to cherry-pick that little part out of Sura 5:32 to find a peaceful-sounding sentence to lay on me? And what about Sura 9:5, the Verse of the Sword?” Mike flipped to another bookmark. “Fight and slay the unbelievers wherever you find them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem of war. But if they repent and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them; for Allah is forgiving and most merciful.”
“The Christian Bible also contains violent passages, would you like to hear some of them as well? You see, there are many differing interpretations of Islam, and there are unfortunately a small percentage of extremists who prefer to choose among the more violent verses. Just as there are violent Christian extremists, who choose among the violent verses of the Bible.”
“But there are over a hundred verses in the Koran that tell Muslims to wage jihad against the infidels until they submit to Islam, so I don’t think that you can compare the Koran to the Bible. And there’s something even more important than the number of times that the Koran tells Muslims to slay the unbelievers — I’m talking about the Islamic principle of abrogation. Tell me if I’m wrong, but abrogation means that the verses from the later chapters cancel out the earlier verses if there’s any contradiction. Sura 9 was the last chapter that Allah gave to Mohammed, so it abrogates any earlier verses that contradict it. It erases them. The peaceful verses were written when Mohammed was in Mecca, and his new religion was only just beginning.”
Mike continued, “But in Mecca, Mohammed’s new religion wasn’t pulling in many converts, at most, maybe one or two hundred, and that was after a few years of trying, so he left. It wasn’t until after Mohammed’s hijra migration to Medina that he started to pull in thousands of new converts. You know, hijra — like the name of your mosque. And the big reason that they were suddenly attracted to Mohammed’s new religion was because after he got to Medina, Allah told Mohammed that his followers could kill anybody who opposed the spread of Islam, and take their property, and take their women as slaves. The Verse of the Sword cancels out the peaceful verses from the Meccan period, isn’t that true? Isn’t that the meaning of abrogation?”
“I don’t know where you have learned your understanding of Islam, but I fear that you have come under the influence of the Islamophobes.”
“Imam, you’re one of the leading Islamic scholars in America, so I’m sure that you understand the principle of abrogation. I thought it might be important, so I wrote it down on another bookmark. Here it is: abrogation is ‘naskh’ in Arabic. At least, that’s how they spell it in English. You never heard of it?”
“I’ve heard of it, but I’m afraid that you have only learned one meaning of naskh from among many. A true understanding of these concepts would take many years of careful study at an Islamic university. There are differing ways to interpret the meaning of the holy books, and Muslims understand their faith in differing ways. Thankfully, most Muslims are quite moderate in their beliefs, just as most Christians are.”
“Moderate Muslims…that reminds me. I wrote down something about that. Here it is. President Erdogan of Turkey said that ‘There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam and that’s it. These descriptions are very ugly, it is offensive and an insult to our religion.’ So, was he wrong to say that?”
“President Erdogan speaks only for himself. I don’t know what was in his mind, or even if that is a true quotation of what he said.”
“Well what about you, Imam Qutb? Do you think it’s insulting to suggest that there is moderate and immoderate Islam? Since you live in America now, do you consider yourself to be a moderate Muslim? I mean, you’re not one of those radical extremists, are you?”
“I consider myself to be a faithful and principled Muslim. But why are you questioning me? That which you are planning to do will lead to a great catastrophe! My question to you is, why are you doing it? What is your hidden agenda?”
“Why? I told you already: I want to create another great work of art like Serrano’s Piss Christ. Maybe even better. Then, someday I can have an exhibit in the Modern Art Museum, too.”
“The unnecessary deaths of many people will be upon your name if you go ahead with this great blasphemy! Are you willing to accept that terrible responsibility?”
“Any murder is the responsibility of the murderer and nobody else. Imam, you’re from Egypt, and Arabic is your first language, isn’t that right?”
“Yes, that is correct. And I must say that if you have been reading the Koran in English, then you can’t really understand the many subtle nuances that are lost in translation.”
“But Imam Qutb, I bought my Koran at an Islamic bookstore, and it says right here that the translation is fully certified by the Al-Azhar Islamic University in Cairo, and it’s recommended for teaching non-Muslims about your faith.” Mike held the inside cover of the Koran up for the camera. “See, it has English on one side, and Arabic on the other. And most of the Muslims in the world don’t speak Arabic, so they have to use a translation of the Koran, otherwise, they can’t read it. So what about the people that can’t read Arabic? Are you saying that only Arabic speakers are able to fully comprehend Islam? Why wouldn’t Allah make Islam comprehensible to all people in all languages?”
“You are speaking in riddles, Mike, and I don’t know why. I’m afraid that a complete understanding of Allah’s divine intentions for mankind are much more complicated than can be conveyed with a brief explanation over the telephone.”
“Well, in that case, can you explain just one more Arabic word to me, with all of its subtle nuances? I think it’s an important word for all Americans to understand.”
“What word is that?”
“Taqiyya. Can you tell us the meaning of taqiyya, and how it relates to dawah, which is the spreading of the faith of Islam among the unbelievers? Like, during a hijra migration, say?”
“Oh, Mike, I can see that I am wasting my time with you today, and I am very sorry for that. Clearly, your mind has been poisoned by the professional Islamophobes.”
“So, you won’t tell everybody what taqiyya means?”
“Mike, I’m very sorry that your mind is closed to the truth of the message of Allah. And again, I urge you in the very strongest terms not to conduct your act of blasphemy.”
“Can you please explain why blasphemy against one religion is acceptable, but not against another?”
“I would never say that any blasphemy is acceptable, ever. Faithful Muslims are against all forms of blasphemy. If it was my decision, no such blasphemy would be permitted.”
“But in our country, we have the freedom of expression under the First Amendment of the Constitution, and the Constitution is still the supreme law of our country.”
“Free expression is not an excuse for the incitement of violence. One may not shout fire in a crowded theater, to use a famous example.”
“I’m am doing no such thing. I’m all by myself.”
“Mike, I equally condemn the blasphemous Serrano exhibit as I condemn what you are planning. And I would call on Muslims who honor all of our prophets to come to the place where this blasphemous Serrano exhibit will held, to protest against it.” Imam Qutb then spoke a few sentences in Arabic, which, of course, Mike could not understand.
Jerry Conroy said, “I’m sorry, but what does that mean? What did you just say?”
“I said that faithful Muslims should come to the place of the blasphemy, to pray for peace among all people of faith.”
“Oh, all right. We can certainly all agree on that. Thank you, Imam Qutb. Thank you for your unique perspective.”
“You’re welcome.” Then the imam spoke few more words in Arabic, and he was gone.
Conroy said, “Folks, I know this is an unusual situation, but we’ve blown right through our scheduled break. We’ll be right back after these messages from our sponsors.”
Up on the crane, Mike looked at his smart phone. BCA had also cut to a commercial. He reached into his pack, took out a half-liter water bottle, and sipped from it. He’d been drinking only sparingly since the night before, and had eaten nothing, so that he would not be interrupted by a call of nature. He was much too wired to feel hunger or to need a cup of coffee or any other stimulant. He put the pocket radio’s ear bud back in, and listened to the commercials on WNYR, so that he would know when the break was over.
Then he pushed the preset button for National Public Radio. A panel was discussing the dramatic situation in Midtown Manhattan. Voices were shouting over one another about how to avert the great calamity that was going to befall New York, and indeed, the entire world, if the “standoff” on the crane was allowed to proceed any further. One of the female panelists even suggested that it would be better for the police to shoot Brooklyn Mike dead where he sat, rather than to allow his desecration of the Holy Koran to occur! As the lesser of evils! To save lives! On NPR, no less! Then Mike went back to WNYR, so that he wouldn’t miss the next segment.
He looked down 53rd toward the MAM while he was waiting. It was full morning light, and even though the street was still mostly in shadow, he didn’t need his binoculars to see what was happening. The flatbed with the extra police barricades was now parked at the 6th Avenue end of 53rd in the shadow of the BCA tower. City workers in orange vests were setting up a police line across 53rd where it intersected 6th Avenue. Then he heard the Jerry Conroy Show bumper music, and picked his phone back up.
Conroy was saying, “We’re back live, folks, and all I can say, is — wow! Did anybody see this coming? Brooklyn Mike, are you still there?”
“I’m here, Jerry.”
“Next, we have a special guest who would like to speak with you. In the studio with me is Victor Del Rio, a special assistant to the mayor for public safety. Victor, you’re on.”
“Mike, this is Victor Del Rio, but you can call me Vic, everybody does. So how are feeling up there, buddy? Me, I can’t stand heights. So what are you thinking, big Mike? Anything you need? I’m sure that we can work something out. I’m sure we can settle this problem without anybody getting hurt.”
Mike hesitated before he spoke. “I haven’t said a single word about hurting anybody, Vic. So now I’m guessing that you’re some kind of police negotiator, is that right?”
“Mike, um, no, I, uh, no, uh… No.”
“Vic, I don’t have any weapons. I don’t have a bomb. And I’m not going to jump. You have nothing to worry about from my end. So why don’t you put Jerry back on?”
“Well, gee, Mike, it looks like Jerry has stepped out for a minute, but I’m sure he’ll be back in a while. In the meantime, why don’t you and I talk?”
Mike looked at his iPhone. The shot of him at the end of the crane occupied the entire screen. There was no photo of “Victor Del Rio.” If he was really one of the mayor’s “special assistants,” then BCA News would have a picture of him ready to show the world. They’d had no trouble finding a photo of Imam Qutb, or Reverend Peterson.
“All right, Vic, we can talk. But first, I want to show you something, and then we can talk about it.” Mike took out his aluminum clipboard case, slid out a sheet of paper, and held it up for the camera. “I printed this right off the BCA website over the weekend. See? It’s Serrano’s Piss Christ, right on their website. The web page had links to a couple of their old news stories about it, and I watched some of them. BCA News had no problem at all showing Piss Christ on national television at least five different times.”
A glance at his smart phone showed that BCA was indeed broadcasting the printed screen capture of their web page, complete with a large, well focused rendition of Piss Christ in bright orange and yellow. “See that, Victor? They had no problem at all showing anti-Christian art. The web page was still up yesterday, and it’s probably still up right now.”
Then Mike took another sheet of paper from the aluminum case and held it up for the camera. “But here’s a picture from a much bigger news story. People got killed over pictures like this, but BCA never showed them, not even one single time.”
Mike held a full-page copy of a cartoon next to the copy of the BCA News Piss Christ web page. It was a hand-drawn caricature of a bearded, glaring man wearing a turban. The turban had a lit fuse, making it into a bomb. Mike held the two pictures as steady as he could in his left hand, side by side, because he had to hold the phone in his right. The breeze was coming up, and he had to hold the two pages against his chest to keep them from blowing around. The picture on his smart phone cut away to Charlie Thorn, who appeared completely startled, but no words were formed by his gaping mouth. Then the screen returned to the live crane shot, but this time, both pages on Mike’s chest were pixilated. Mike held the two pages up for a few more seconds, and then he put them away.
“Now, isn’t that interesting, Vic? All these years, and BCA News never had a problem with showing a photograph of Jesus Christ on the cross, submerged in piss. If Christians didn’t like it, that was their problem. But when I put the Piss Christ next to a cartoon of Mohammed, all of the sudden it gets blurred out. Now, why do you think that is?”
Victor Del Rio said, “Mike, I agree with you, man. One hundred percent. And I’m glad that BCA is finally coming around and showing some respect for our Christian values and sensibilities, and we all have you to thank for that. You’ve done a great service today, Mike, you really have. Now, if we can talk about how we’re going to resolve this other situation, I think that — ”
“Vic, I think that you’re an hostage negotiator, but I don’t see any hostages, do you? So why don’t you put Jerry Conroy back on the phone?”
“Mike, I can’t do that right now. Jerry’s, uh, Jerry’s on his way over to the BCA News studio, and, uh — ”
“Vic, I know it’s just your job, but if you don’t put Jerry back on in the next sixty seconds, I’m not waiting until ten o’clock when the Serrano exhibit opens. I’m not a complete fool, Victor. Fifty seconds.” Mike pinched the phone between his left shoulder and cheek, wishing he had brought some kind of a headset to keep both hands free. He reached behind him and dragged over the bottle of amber liquid, set in on the deck in front of the Koran in the bucket, and unscrewed the cap one-handed.
Then Jerry Conroy’s voice returned. “I’m still here, Mike. Please, put the bottle away. I’m still here.”
“I’m glad you are, Jerry. But I don’t want to hear from any more psychologists or police negotiators. If the mayor wants to talk to me, then put on the mayor. If the police commissioner wants to talk to me, then put him on. But no more stooges, okay? No more. Don’t sandbag me like that again. Don’t insult my intelligence.”
“I’m sorry, Mike, I’m really sorry. You have to understand, I’m under a lot of pressure here.”
“You? Under pressure?” Mike snickered. “Tell me about it.”
Jerry Conroy laughed too. “Yeah, I can see your point. You want to take another call?”
“Only if it’s legit. No more stooges.”
“It’s legit, I promise.”
“Then put him on.”
“Okay, Mike. Here’s Joseph. He says he’s a Christian Arab from Lebanon. Okay, Joseph, you’re on the Jerry Conroy Show with Brooklyn Mike.”
“I’m on? Okay. Mike, like Jerry said, I’m a Christian, a Maronite Catholic. Most of my family was wiped out, and the rest of us were driven out of Lebanon by the Muslims thirty years ago, when I was a young man. Now it’s happening again in Syria, in Iraq, everywhere in the Middle East. Ethnic cleansing, religious cleansing, right in the lands where Jesus walked. And I understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. I understand your feelings, I understand your anger. But Mike, if you go through with it, it’s going to be a slaughter. You understand that? A complete slaughter! Innocents will die. The Muslims are going to go absolutely out-of-their-minds bat-shit crazy if you do it.”
“What they do is up to them, Joseph. Are they human beings, with reason, and free will, or are they just robots that look like humans, but are programmed to kill on command?”
“I hear you, Mike, and I know what you’re saying. I really do. But I also wanted to warn you, to warn everybody, that what the imam said that he said in Arabic wasn’t what he really said. This is what he really said.” The caller spoke in Arabic, and then in English again. “He called all the Muslims in the city to come down and stop the great blasphemy, no matter what the price. So I’m very afraid for your safety, Mike. I’m afraid for everybody down there. That’s all I wanted to say. And good luck. But don’t do it.”
“I appreciate that, Joseph, but I’m not changing my mind. If the Serrano exhibit opens, I’m going to create my own work of art. Nothing will change my mind.”
Conroy said, “All right, next caller, but please, keep it in English, so that everybody can understand. Mike, are you ready for another caller?”
“Go ahead, Jerry.”
“All right, next up is Ghazi from Queens. Go ahead, Ghazi.”
“Mike, you are out of your mind, my kafir friend. Out of your mind! Do you know what is going to happen if you go through with this great blasphemy? Do you know? You are not only going to wish that you were dead, you are going to pray for death!” Then the caller launched into a stream of blistering invective in Arabic before he was cut off. With the ten-second delay, Mike guessed that nobody listening would have heard his threats, or what he said in Arabic at the end.
Conroy said, “Real sweet, Ghazi. Real sweet. Listen, folks, we won’t get anywhere like that. If we can’t have a civil conversation, we’re going to clear the lines and start all over again with new callers. Next up, Mohammed is calling from Maryland. Go ahead, Mohammed.”
Another male voice with a thick Middle Eastern accent. “Mike, you are making a very terrible mistake, a very terrible mistake. Already millions of Muslims around the world are watching what you are doing. The whole world is trembling for what you are about to do! The Holy Koran is the received truth of Allah, and Muslims take it very seriously. Please, don’t do this thing to our Holy Koran!”
“Listen, Mohammed, you came to my country, I didn’t go to yours. If you don’t like it, then why don’t you — ”
Conroy cut in. “Mike, the mayor is on the line.”
“Great. Put him on.”
Hizzoner’s deep, gruff voice. “Mike, do you have any idea what kind of hornet’s nest you’ve whipped up? Do you? And not only in New York.”
“I have a pretty good idea, Mr. Mayor. So, are you going to cancel the exhibit, or not?”
“We don’t give in to extortion, Mike. We can’t. Not under duress, not with a gun pointed at our heads. You come on down, and we’ll discuss it like mature adults, I promise. We’ll work something out, we’ll reach a compromise.”
“I don’t have a gun, mayor. But I’m glad you called, because I have a bone to pick with you. Last week, you said that right-wing Christian bigots had to learn to show tolerance for the views of others. That was when you announced that the Serrano exhibit was going ahead no matter how much anger it was creating. Don’t you think that it’s time you gave the same tolerance lecture to the Muslims?”
“How can you possibly equate the two situations?”
“How can you not?”
“Nobody is threatening violence over the Serrano exhibit.”
“And I’m not threatening violence either, so what’s your point?”
“Mike, I’m sure that we can discuss this like mature adults.”
“I’m sure that we can. So call off the Serrano exhibit, Mr. Mayor. Box it up and get it out of the city. After that, we’ll talk about me coming down.”
“I can’t do that, Mike. That would be surrendering to extortion.”
“Well, then I don’t think that we have — ”
Then a blue and white helicopter dropped out of the sky, lurching to a stop fifty feet in front of Mike’s perch, facing him like a science-fiction super insect. It must have been hovering on top of the building to arrive so suddenly and without warning. The rotors and engine were barely audible, but then a wall of sound blasted from the chopper louder than the front row of a death-metal rock concert. Driven by animal reflex he turned away just in time to see another helicopter swerve in from behind the bank building and pull up over the crane’s jib.
Blinding, pulsing light hit Mike’s platform from behind him, so bright that he could barely see, even though he wasn’t looking toward it. It was only a matter of luck that he hadn’t been staring at the first police helicopter when the light started flashing, but even while looking away from it he was half blinded by its relentless strobing. The continuous whooping acoustic roar was head-splitting, louder than standing directly behind a jet engine at takeoff, but the sound was uneven, up and down in tone, coming in erratic waves that were synchronized with the blinding light. Waves of nausea rolled through him, his hands clamped over his ears, feeling as if his skull was going to explode.
The helicopter that appeared from behind the building had a pair of SWAT commandos dressed in black leaning out on both sides, their feet on its skids. The helicopter’s whirling rotors were only a foot or two from the window walls of the bank building, but the chopper was bobbing up and down erratically above the crane’s jib. Two SWAT cops on the building side of the helicopter kicked away and dropped, descending on ropes.
Next: Part Three
Matthew Bracken was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1957, and attended the University of Virginia, where he received a BA in Russian Studies and was commissioned as a naval officer in 1979. Later in that year he graduated from Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, and in 1983 he led a Naval Special Warfare detachment to Beirut, Lebanon. Since then he’s been a welder, boat builder, charter captain, ocean sailor, essayist and novelist. He lives in Florida. Links to his short stories and essays may be found at EnemiesForeignAndDomestic.com. For his previous essays, see the Matthew Bracken Archives.