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September 10, 2010

A Random Act of Courage: Taking A Stand at Ground Zero, by Ken Braun

I used to manage a record store on New York City’s Warren Street, right around the corner from the Burlington Coat Factory that is now the proposed site of the Cordoba Center, widely (but inaccurately) called “the Ground Zero mosque.”  Four short blocks north of the Twin Towers, my colleagues and I used to jokingly call our store the World Music Trade Center.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, as I was on my way to work, pieces of airplane fell on the roof of our building and a tsunami of ash and grit got inside and ruined almost everything.  Four customers I knew, and possibly others I had seen in the store or talked to, were killed that day; at least two of them were Muslim.

My staff comprised three Christians, two Jews, one Muslim, one atheist and my agnostic self.  When we were able to reopen our store just before Christmas, we set up a display near the entrance, with a sign reading "Islamic Music from Around the World," which was exactly what we offered on that center rack.  We also gave a prominent place in the Asian section, along one wall, to secular Afghan music that had been banned by the Taliban, especially a CD by a singer whose death in a car crash his fans believed to have been engineered by Al Qaeda. 

Like many of the small businesses in the neighborhood, our store got a lot of people coming in after their pilgrimage to Ground Zero, wanting to spend some money to help repair a small part of what had been wrecked.  We were glad to see them, but many of them turned around and walked out as soon as they saw the first word on our sign: Islamic.  "O my God, can you believe this?" was the most moderate exclamation we heard.  Other visitors looked through the CDs on display and perhaps picked up a few, some headed for more familiar sections, and some approached my colleagues or me to say "I don't know anything about Islamic music. Can you recommend something?"  We were glad to; Islam has inspired a lot of fascinating and beautiful music.  One gentleman, a delegate to the United Nations, having heard about our display, came to our store just to thank us for it.  And then there was the guy who strode in and tried to overturn the center rack.  When he couldn't (it was too big and heavy), he scattered some CDs on the floor, stomped on them, and walked out shouting "Burn in hell!"

We had actually been planning to move the Islamic music back to one side next to the Judaica section, but after losing some CDs to a jackboot, we decided that we had to hold our stand against fundamentalism and Islamophobia.  We kept the display front and center.  In the end, neither terrorists nor reactionaries but music pirates and internet freeloaders closed our store.

It was much smaller and far less significant than the Cordoba Center, but I think of that record store when I hear the calumnies hurled against "the Ground Zero mosque."  Like its visionaries and supporters, my colleagues and I were trying to counteract ignorance and bigotry and hatred in whatever way we could.  Because it was ignorance and bigotry and hatred that had fallen on us – all of us, everywhere – on 9-11.  Remembering the days and weeks that followed, I admit to feelings of pride at having done a little something to defend our American freedoms of religion and expression.  But sadness overwhelms the pride.  After nine years and hundreds of thousands of violent deaths since 9-11, we still haven’t learned that day’s lessons.

- Ken Braun


  1. Well said. I hope many more people read this.

  2. Mark Twain once said 'A lie can travel half way round the world while the truth is still putting its boots on. But... the truth wins out in the end'.
    A note from a post I just read elsewhere. Thankyou Rory Grant for pointing me here.

  3. Great story Ken,
    We all must strive to be better human beings and to evolve to a higher quality of thinking.We need to practice love and compassion and learn to supress ignorance and hatred.We only have one world and we must all live on it in peace,respect and tolerance.

  4. Well done Ken!

    And I truly miss Stern's - it was one of the last great record stores left in NYC, and you were always the most gracious and patient proprietor - it was always a pleasure hanging out there and pestering you guys while you were working.

  5. Ken, thanks for rekindling fond memories of old sterns and what we all stood for thru our interest in marketing music from all corners of the globe.

  6. Carol Haile SelassieSeptember 13, 2010 at 10:08 AM

    Well said Ken. Hope your thoughts and feelings are shared by everyone; hate begets hate, violence begets violence. Good always overcomes evil. Miss working with you!

  7. Thank you Ken, I was very moved by your story and your commitment to peace. What a noble soul you are!
    Thank you.
    Julia Banzi
    Al-Andalus Ensemble

  8. Amen, Ken. Via radio and blog, I've also been trying to educate folks about the wonders of Islamic (and other) musics, and the distinction between "Muslim" and "terrorist." Most are receptive. Some are angrily not. Keep up the good work!

  9. Nice post. Learned so many things. Thanks for sharing.