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How Long and How Far?

There are few things more frustrating than individuals who advocate a suspension of liberty in order to preserve it. Yet time and time again, leaders do not merely get away with advocating such nonsense but actually earn admiration for it. Most recently, leaders of the right such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have given impassioned arguments against the planned construction of an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan. Unfortunately, their arguments have been strong on emotion and weak on facts. Such tactics are no longer surprising in this country, but they are nonetheless disappointing. History is full of attempts to scapegoat the powerless or unpopular. From witch hunts and inquisitions of old to discrimination of immigrants in the United States ranging from Italians to Irish at the turn of the 20th century on through Jim Crow, Japanese-American internment camps, the Red Scare, and now the Muslim-American community. It is obvious in retrospect that those who advocate or actively participate in discrimination were on the wrong side of history, but it is sometimes more difficult to recognize consequences of wrongful attitudes in the midst of populist uproar. However, once the attitude has been recognized and pointed out, it is immoral to continue down the same path as generations past, knowing where it leads.

The objections to the Cordoba Initiative’s project to build a new community center tend to rest on the notion that there is something inherently offensive and deliberately provocative about the plans. It is often said that the planned location, which is two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center is too close and therefore distasteful. It is also sometimes argued that the location would be acceptable had more time passed since the attacks of September 11th, 2001. It is also implied that Cordoba has some kind of nefarious intent for its building. These arguments are as disingenuous as they are vague. How long should Cordoba wait or how far away must they build in order to satisfy their critics? So two blocks is too close—how about 10? 20? Two miles? The same borough? City? County? How many years? One? Five? Fifteen? The acceptable distance in time or space is never stated, probably because it does not exist in the mind of opponents. Similar projects as far away as Tennessee have come under fire, so I doubt the site really has anything to do with it. Cordoba has a track record of providing a moderate voice that condemns extremism and fosters interfaith dialogue.

However, let us take the objection at face value and examine possible motivations for choosing the proposed site. It could be that the location is intended to be a monument to the attackers, demonstrating that Islam somehow has achieved victory in one of the Great Satan’s former strongholds. But for that to be case, one would expect that the people behind the initiative are going out of their way to meet at a site that is far from their normal gathering place. This is not the case. The Imam behind the project has been leading a congregation in the area for 27 years. They were meeting ten blocks away from the World Trade Center long before the attacks took place, and they have remained in the area since. They are as much a part of the area as any other business or organization. One might say that they were twice victims. First, their kin were lost, their homes, stores and houses of worship suffered from damage and debris just like everyone else. Then, they were blamed for somehow contributing or having an affiliation with the terrorists, despite being as different in values, faith and practice from Al-Qaeda as Methodists or Catholics. One could understand a momentary lapse of judgment under such extreme conditions, but as the protests show, it is still going on ten years later.

Which brings us to the point that it perhaps it is too soon to build in lower Manhattan. Applied consistently, this argument is more philosophical than legal or moral. A movement to turn the entire neighborhood into a memorial park of some sort in order to honor the lives and memories of the victims might warrant some consideration. I’ve pointed out in the past that Americans, as a people, have all but forgotten how to mourn. However, there is little precedent, past or present for memorials, nor have there been serious efforts in this regard in Manhattan. Every nation has thousands of former crime scenes and battle sites, and nearly all of them are cleaned up and put back to commercial or residential use. In the case of Cordoba, the objections are not rooted in preservation, but prevention. People do not want a particular group to build a particular kind of facility, but they have not taken the effort to examine the source of their prejudice. It is not fair, logical or even practical to suspect millions of Americans of terrorist ties on the basis of their religion and heritage. We instinctively recognize this when terrorists look and dress like us. We know that the abortion clinic bomber or mafia boss is not representative of his faith or race. Yet, somehow, people that are different are mentally blended and classified as “other.” There is an area where the Golden Rule is sorely needed. Were the shoe on the other foot, would the Palins and Gingriches of the world really want people from a thousand miles away accusing them of terrorist associations because a handful of White Christians committed an atrocity?

The final objection commonly raised is that not Cordoba is something other than the peaceful organization it claims to be. The talking heads continue to imply that something untoward is going on, but their accusations do not pass logical muster. A secret, shadowy group does not go around building a multi-story facility in a conspicuous location. The implication completely ignores the role and judgment of local authorities, which are otherwise the heroes of the Right. Constructing a new building in a major city is no small undertaking. The property must be procured, and the plans approved by zoning boards, commissions studying safety, construction and impact on the area. Throughout this entire process, the government officials of New York City the ones who are most likely to have first-hand knowledge of the individuals behind the project, have approved the undertaking at every step along the way. The planned building is neither not ostentatious or out of place in any way. It is not as if there will be a towering minaret that would be more at home in Medina than Manhattan. It is a simple community center, complete with a museum, library, and swimming pool. This will certainly be an aesthetic improvement over the damaged building that currently occupies the site. If someone has genuine information to back their assertions, it would be more prudent to bring their evidence before law enforcement and intelligence officials than a talk show audience. If there is no evidence, then it is not the motivations of Cordoba that deserve suspicion. Frankly, I have far more reason to suspect the integrity of those who would impugn the character of their fellow citizens for political points than I do of people that have been living peaceful, quiet lives despite unwarranted oppression and discrimination.

It seems to me that the intended purpose of terrorism is the instilment of fear—fear that is profound enough to fundamentally alter behavior and values. By that standard, Al Qaeda seems to be making progress in America even as they are losing on the battlefield overseas. They seem to have an entire political movement playing right into their hands, spreading more fear, hate and discrimination that their own numbers would allow. Our officials have justified torture, warrantless wire-tapping and indefinite detention without charges. A thriving, peaceful community is coming under suspicion for sharing nothing more than similar ethnicity to our enemies. This is disheartening indeed. Much is said about the “shadow of ground zero,” but what of the shadow of the Statue of Liberty? It is bad enough to lose buildings and lives, do we really need to hand over our values as well?