Point of View Columns

Tower of Babble

When we are tempted to feel superior we will characterize this person as being “stupid”, or that person as being “ignorant” or another person as being “bigoted and prejudiced”. Of course that feeling of superiority usually precedes a fall into muck of reality. The reality being that we all carry the seeds of stupidity, ignorance, bigotry and prejudice. We can aspire to overcoming these inherent human weaknesses only by recognizing their existence and by striving for greater understanding, learning and comprehension of the world around us.
That brings us to the current controversy surrounding the site of the World Trade Center in New York City, destroyed by a terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. As a New Yorker and an American 9/11 is a day that I will never forget. I will always remember gathering my four year old son from a day care center and watching fighter jets flying very low over us as we fled north along Central Park, trying to get away from the death and destruction. I recall the very real fear and anguish I felt as I knew that his mother was at the World Trade Center and did not know if she had survived (thankfully, she did).
The fear and the anguish that all New Yorkers and all Americans felt on that day was common and in some ways unifying. We were unified by fear. We were unified in our grief for the loss of human life. We were unified in our affirmation that this country would prevail over whatever evil that had attacked us.
In the days and years since that unity has dissipated. Focused retribution on the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack morphed into a chimera called the Global War on Terror soon to be known as the War Without End. The fear and anguish that we all experienced has become a bloody shirt with which fearmongers wrap themselves, treating the unifying aspects of 9/11 as just another political bargaining chip.
And now ill-tempered forces have aligned themselves against the construction of a building in Lower Manhattan that will house a community center sponsored by an Islamic faith-based organization. The blooming of the rancid flowers of stupidity, ignorance, bigotry and prejudice has commenced and the arguments against this project simply trample over the facts.
The facts are that the community center will house a prayer center, a gym, a pool, a 500-seat theater and gallery space for rotating exhibitions. There will be a restaurant, a culinary school, retail space and a catering hall for weddings and other social occasions. How could this possibly be offensive to anyone? But the right wing of the right wing and prominent leaders of the Party of No (also known as the Republican Party) and 9/11 victims’ families argue that the mere proximity of a community center would be offensive because of its Islamic affiliation.
Facts don’t matter when stupidity, ignorance, bigotry and prejudice are let loose from the corral of reason. The fact is that there is already a community center at the site in question on Park Place in Lower Manhattan. The fact is that several hundred Muslims worship at the prayer space in that center every Friday without incident or offense to anyone in the community. The fact is that the local Community Planning Board approved and endorsed this project. Therefore one would think that if the local residents are in favor of the project that proponents of individual rights from Washington to Wasilla would defer to the expressed judgment of the people.
But there are more facts. My son (who is now thirteen) and I went to Park Place this past weekend to see how close this offensive project would be to the hallowed ground that is the World Trade Center site. Our best estimate is that it is six blocks from the actual site of the new structures that are taking forever to build. Six blocks is the distance between galaxies in Manhattan. Also there are two buildings between the proposed thirteen story structure and the new World Trade Center, each of them over twenty stories high.
The fact is that while the proposed community center will have a prayer room it is not a mosque. There will be no spires and minarets to offend the sensibilities of those who could respect a synagogue or cathedral, but would be offended by a mosque. The fact is that when this project is completed a visitor to the new World Trade Center would have to search for this offending community center because it is in no way hovering or looming or haunting the sacred site.
The esteemed and self-deposed former governor of Alaska, that noted scholar Sarah Palin, has asked for American Muslims to “refudiate” (sic) this project because its proximity to the site of the 9/11 disaster. Clearly six blocks is too close by her inscrutable calculations. One might ask what would be far enough? The largest mosque in North America is on 96th Street in Manhattan, about five miles away. Would that be o.k.? But there are 9/11 victims’ families living near that mosque so perhaps that mosque should be torn down so as not to “offend”?
Perhaps there would be no need to “refudiate” if the proposed center was in another state, but 9/11 victims came from all over America. Perhaps another country is the answer? But we know that 9/11 victims came from all over the world.
Perhaps the perverse conclusion of this torrent of stupidity, ignorance, bigotry and prejudice would be to remove all mosques and Islamic centers from the face of the earth. In which case I would suggest that the right wing of the right wing and the Party of No and its Tea Party subsidiary and the esteemed Ms. Palin and Newt Gingrich just say so. As a famous Republican of another era once said, “Honesty is the best policy”.
In these United States of America freedom has as its corollary tolerance. Rights are absolute and tolerance is the currency of a free society. Does freedom of religion apply to all faiths except Islam?