Short Fuses on 9-11


If not for his untrimmed beard and knit kufi skullcap, Muhamed Pjetrovic could be standard-issue, New York blue-collar tradesman. He is short with a barrel chest and the rough hands of the electrician he has been for almost 25 years. He has a quick grin and cracks the little jokes that manual workers use to get through the day. He has three baseball-loving sons whom he ferries to school every morning. He is a registered voter who goes to the polls on election days. Since 1981 he has held a membership card in Local 3 of the electrical workers’ union, and the good wages it brought helped him buy a home in New Jersey and an upstate bungalow. There, he liked to go back in the woods and bang away at cans with a .22, a hobby that led him to join the NRA.

But none of those otherwise healthy American traits seemed to count for much after 9-11, when Pjetrovic was barred as a security threat from the downtown computer center where he had worked since 1986. After he was fired from his $25 per hour job, he found himself abandoned: His union declined to take his case to arbitration, and the firms he approached for new jobs turned him away.

In a lawsuit now pending in Manhattan federal court, Pjetrovic (pronounced Pee-yetro-vich) claims that Merrill Lynch & Co., the investment giant whose generators and power lines he tended for more than two decades, and his direct employer, a contractor named Knight Electrical Services, had discriminated against him as a Muslim and wrongly accused him of disrupting the workplace.

“In many respects, he’s an All-American guy who came under suspicion only because he has different beliefs,” said attorney Robert Perry, who, along with lawyer Yasser Helal, represents Pjetrovic.

The defendants declined to discuss the case, but in court papers they say that they responded properly to a potential security risk and did not discriminate.

The dispute centers on just what happened in the third floor shop room at 570 Washington Street in lower Manhattan where, two days after the attack on the World Trade Center, Pjetrovic had an argument with co-workers about who was to blame. It also hinges on whether supervisors made a jittery post-9-11 leap concerning Pjetrovic’s motives months before the attacks, when he downloaded ads for assault rifles from a company computer.

Floating in the lawsuit’s background are the suspicions and misunderstandings that have often accompanied the entry of practicing Muslims into America’s mainstream work force.

By his own account, Pjetrovic, 42, wasn’t much of a Muslim when he first started working at Merrill Lynch’s properties back in 1981. A native of Bosnia who moved here when he was 13 and grew up in the Bronx, he got his Local 3 card the same way most do—through a relative. He drank beer after work with the other guys, who called him Mickey. If he had a problem with the girlie pictures that sometimes adorned the lockers in the break room he never said anything about it.

His turn to religion came in 1993 after horrific messages were received from relatives back in Bosnia. Two first cousins were seized by non-Muslim Serbs, and then disappeared. “I wanted to see why were these people persecuting us,” he said. “We were like them, we lived together; then they turned on us so viciously.” He liked what he found in Islam and believed himself a better person as a result of his newfound values.

When he wore the kufi to work, his friends were a little shocked at first, he said. His daily prayers, and the required ritual washing that preceded them, irritated his foreman. He was accused of washing his feet in the same sink where people cleaned their fruit (“I am five feet nothing,” he responded. “No way I can get my feet up there”). Someone swiped the little carpet he used as a prayer rug. When he invited other Muslims at Merrill Lynch to join him for prayers in the break room (the Koran urges joint prayer), he was told by a supervisor the visitors weren’t allowed.

At one point, someone ripped his Muslim calendar off the front of his locker. He retaliated by tearing down some soft-porn photos of fashion model Paulina Porizkova.

Some of that tension may have been hovering in the air on September 13, 2001, when Pjetrovic managed to make it into work for the first time since the attack. The building was crowded with scores of workers from Merrill Lynch’s main offices across the street from the Trade Center who had fled as the towers burned. In the shop, mechanics were watching the news on TV. Many had been working straight through since the assault. As he walked in, a co-worker warned him to watch out, that there were “angry people inside.”

Indeed, he heard a lot of yelling and cursing, he said, much of it aimed at Muslims. Although some were strangers to him, Pjetrovic knew most of the others well, and he chimed in with his own thoughts about the tragedy and the government’s reaction.

“I said it was too soon to know who was to blame,” Pjetrovic recalled. “I said remember the Oklahoma City bombing, with the media so quick to blame Muslims. I said, ‘You don’t know who did this. Could have been CIA, the Jews, the Chinese, the Russians.'” True Muslims couldn’t have done it, he said, because the acts violated precepts against suicide and harming innocent people or fellow Muslims. As for President Bush, Pjetrovic called him “a coward” for not immediately returning to Washington that day. One co-worker angrily walked out during the exchange, but later returned to shake Pjetrovic’s hand. “He said, ‘I am sorry I got hot. I have worked for three days.’ ”

That was the end of it as far as Pjetrovic was concerned. There had been no fight; he didn’t think voices got much louder than usual in the shop. But later, the foreman, the one who had complained about his washing, reported “a heated argument” to his supervisor, who in turn brought the matter to Merrill Lynch’s then exhausted security directors, ex-cops John O’Connor and Patrick Kelleher, a former first deputy commissioner in the NYPD. It’s a matter of dispute who made the decision, but a call was made to Knight Electrical to tell them Pjetrovic wasn’t welcome anymore at Merrill Lynch facilities.

“Why? What is the reason?” Pjetrovic demanded when given the news on Tuesday, September 18, at Knight’s Eighth Avenue office. The contractors told him only that Merrill Lynch didn’t want him around. According to Pjetrovic, they also said there was no work with their other customers. As the electrician sat waiting for his final paycheck, he talked about the Trade Center attack with Tom Dean, Knight’s director of field operations. According to Dean’s deposition, Pjetrovic said that “something else is supposed to happen . . . something to cause confusion and disruption.” Dean added, “Quite honestly it almost seemed to me that he had information to the effect that something else was going to happen as a follow-up.” An anxious Dean later reported the conversation to the FBI, but was told the information was “not specific enough.”

“What I said was, the vicious people who did this, they won’t be stopping,” Pjetrovic insisted. “These idiots, they are going to go further.”

It wasn’t the only such misunderstanding. A month after his firing, when he went to the state’s Division of Human Rights to file a complaint, Pjetrovic learned that he was also accused of having downloaded material from the Web concerning military assault weapons from a Merrill Lynch computer. Pjetrovic acknowledged having done so—months before 9-11. He said he had printed out the ads—pop-ups that appeared while he was prowling the Web for a go-cart for his sons—only to show others in the shop. “I was astonished at the prices, they were thousands of dollars for these guns,” he said. “I thought they would be interested.” He left the printed pages on a table in the break room where they sat for weeks before the attack, alongside copies of Guns & Ammo and other magazines left by workers. The weapons ads, he said, became a problem only later.

The co-worker he thought would be most interested in the rifles’ high cost was a man whose son died in the Trade Center. “When I heard his son was missing, I offered to work his shift,” said Pjetrovic. “They said, ‘No, that’s not necessary.’ ”

His lawsuit is scheduled for trial next January.