I can’t tell you much of a personal nature about Sunando Sen. I only knew him as a helpful, pleasant, intelligent person who worked at the NY Copy and Printing Center at the end of my block for many years. A quiet man, heavy-set, handsome in an old school sort of way, who emanated calm and patience. He could solve almost any design problem. He was gifted and smart and good-hearted. For myself and many of my neighbors he was one of the local tradespeople who would gladly keep an emergency set of your keys in the shop, sign for your FedEx and UPS deliveries when you were away from the house, and automatically offer help in a crisis. He was a valued neighbor, one of those people who make living in a city less alienating and isolating.
He was born in 1966 in Calcutta. His parents were from Bangladesh. He graduated in economics from J.N. University in New Delhi and came to the US in the early 90s on a scholarship to NYU. His mother died soon after he finished his Master’s degree. He was unable to finish his Ph.D. thesis for lack of funds. He began working at the copy center in 1995. He educated himself in computer science and graphic design, and continued working toward his Ph.D. When he first came to America he lived in Brooklyn, then moved to Queens in 1998. Last year he suffered a mild stroke, and left his job at the copy center. Then, with a business partner, he opened New Amsterdam Copy Center uptown, near Columbia.
These are, I realize, no more than a handful of dry facts about someone who was, as it happens, well-loved by the people who knew him, and by the loose constituency of New Yorkers who live in my neighborhood and may not all know each other terribly well but count on one another’s presence in the local streets and shops and restaurants to recognize a few city blocks as “home.”
On December 28th, a deranged woman with a history of violence named Erika Menendez pushed Sunando in front of a train at the 40th St.-Lowery elevated station in Queens. She told police that she “hated Muslims.”
It hardly matters that Sunando was Hindu, since Menendez also said that she hates Hindus and Egyptians, in that order. It does matter that the 40th St.-Lowery station is one of many New York subway stations where the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a hate group started by a radical Zionist named Pamela Geller, was allowed several months ago to place ads implicitly equating Islam with “savagery,” thanks to a federal judge who overruled the good sense of the Transit Authority. The ads continue to pollute the subway system. I know the debate about these particular ads is old news. I don’t propose revisiting it, but rather am urging increased, aggressive vandalism of Geller’s posters. If messages as gratuitously hostile as Geller’s are legal to post in a public space that thousands of people use every day to get to work, it should also be legal to deface them, and if it isn’t, so what.
Ordinary sense would suggest that inflammatory messages aimed against particular racial, ethnic, or religious groups don’t belong in the transit system. If they’re placed there, we have a moral right to fuck them up and render them illegible. Many New Yorkers began wittily embellishing Geller’s “Defend Israel, Fight Jihad” screed as soon as it appeared, as Linda Sarsour noted in a City Limits article last September. But as Sarsour noted at the time, “The danger…is that [Geller] still may tip a handful of people into violent outbursts against Muslims and Arabs. Geller will claim she is not responsible, but she will undoubtedly have played a part.” In light of Sunando’s murder, it’s reasonable to suppose that this has turned out true.
Geller’s message to the public is basically the same thing as the “death to the Jews” that anti-Dreyfusard Parisians in Proust’s novel stitched on their parasols—with the difference that a non-commercial subway ad has the misleading air of something vetted and approved by the city, which in fact rejected the ads but was overruled in federal court. Moreover, Geller’s anti-Muslim ad may very well have acted as a direct catalyst on a racist lunatic like Erika Menendez, if only because schizophrenics often interpret scattered cues in their immediate environment as celestial commands to do incredibly ugly and horrible things. Menendez may be insane, but her action was not “random”: she had a specific animus against the same group demonized by Geller’s ads. (Geller’s Ayn Rand-inspired blog, incidentally, was approvingly cited in the hate manifesto of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer. There is some evidence that Geller had an e-mail correspondance with Breivik prior to his rampage in Oslo. Her intention to incite violence is obvious from the language of her ads, even if their exact wording carefully skirts the outer edge of the legal threshold of blatant hate speech.)
Should Geller’s ads be removed? Well, legally, no. Offended individuals should simply rip them off the walls of the subway or spraypaint them or use them to park chewing gum and other sticky substances. A more creative solution might be to compel Geller to wear them like sandwich boards when she goes out in public, so that it wouldn’t only be other people who have to experience the effect they have on the city’s unbalanced inhabitants. If she makes it through a day without getting shoved in front of a train, we can all declare a victory for free speech and move on.
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