We stood together in the rain on a Sunday in late summer, most of us as protesters, some of us angrier than others, and some of us there as observers to take the temperature of anger at West Broadway and Park Place. We stood close to Ground Zero, as the place where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center once stood will always be called. This was holy ground. We could feel it.
Many in the crowd of the 500 or so men and women protesting the construction of what New Yorkers call “the Ground Zero Mosque” had been touched directly by terrorism, having lost friends, family, husbands, wives and lovers among the 3,000 Americans who died there. Many of the dead were cops and firemen who died trying to save others. Angry politics was the order of the day, with one side crying shame at those who “show no sensitivity for sacred ground,” the other accusing the first group of having no regard for the founding ideals of the republic.
The reasons on both sides are understandable, depending on your point of view. But everything seems all mixed together - anger, sadness and a profound sense that America has lost something big here. Not just the size of the towers - the buildings were always controversial from an aesthetic perspective - but something amorphous, the belief in our invulnerability and lovability. Americans want to be loved (which is why we could never make it as a colonial power) and though we’re sometimes perceived as arrogant, we have always imagined that others see us as meaning well even when we get it wrong. This controversy exposes an ugly side, where we get up close and personal and not only disagree, but really, really dislike those who disagree with us.
The Founders knew that for our nation to come together we had to stretch our principles to embrace protection of opinions that were sometimes hard to abide. On big issues there would always be big fights. Fearing that some of our worst fights could be over an established state religion, the Bill of Rights set out first the right of religious faith; the government could never tell us how or what to worship, or whether to worship anything at all. This has enabled many religious faiths to flourish, but it has never kept anyone from regarding someone else’s faith with distrust or even revulsion.
Sometimes arguments get robust. Mormons, Mennonites and Unificationists have taken it on the chin at times in our past. Protestants and Catholics have regarded each other with hostility. Catholics and Jews have been exploited by stereotypes. Even Baptists and Methodists have occasionally had angry spats in small-town America. It took John F. Kennedy to demonstrate that a Catholic could be elected president. But when Joe Lieberman, an observant Jew, was nominated for vice president by a major political party and his ticket lost, there was no bitter anti-Semitism in the wake of defeat. We’re clearly making progress. Religion and politics have always had an uneasy relationship, sometimes exacerbated by current events.
Such is the controversy over a mosque proposed near Ground Zero. Those disposed against the mosque are decried by others as Islamophobes. Those who favor it are called self-righteous and oblivious of the feelings of those who lost loved ones there. Neither accusation is fair. Passion (if not extremism) is always understandable in the defense of liberty; there’s already a mosque four blocks away, and no one has objected to that. But the recovery - both physical and spiritual - from what happened at Ground Zero is unfinished business. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan remind us every day that Americans are still sacrificing their lives fighting enemies who identify with the men who flew airplanes into the New York City skyline.
No matter how they may have perverted the Muslim religion, no matter that innocent Muslims here felt victimized, too, the barbarians of Sept. 11 were Muslim, and a new mosque near Ground Zero will be interpreted by the radical Islamists as a monument to their “victory” over America. Time may heal all wounds, but not quickly. Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the state Assembly and a Democrat whose district includes Ground Zero, says the organizers of the campaign to build the mosque may have “honorable” motives, but they must consider “the kind of turmoil that’s been created and look to compromise.”
That’s neither apocalyptic nor melodramatic, nor does it speak to a “clash of civilizations,” but it speaks eloquently to the moment, an appeal to common sense and sensitivity for honoring sacred ground, for finding another site for the mosque and moving on.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.