Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Mosque at Ground Zero

I'm going to do this in a several parts.  Today, I am speaking from the heart.  No research, no cruising the interweb, no fingertips stained with newsprint from back issues of the New York Times.  For this first post, I'm going to write what I feel.  Tomorrow, or the next day, or maybe the day after that, I will look for some facts, perhaps stumble across an answer or two, and I will revisit the topic then.  But, for now, I'm going to rave a little bit.

I'm hurt in my heart.  Truly.  I'm feeling a physical pain when I think about this topic.  It's not the anxious knot I carried around in my gut for the 50 pre-Sertraline years of my life, although I do carry a measure of anxiety about the situation.  But my ache is deeper, penetrating my deepest held convictions, and tying them up, twisting them around and leaving me to wonder where I really live.

At first glance, the notion is just in bad taste.  A monument to the religious beliefs of the perpetrators of mass murder on the site of an attack is bad form right on the face of it.  It's like building a skin-head clubhouse at the entrance to a Jewish cemetery.  There's nothing illegal about it, but it's ugly and inappropriate. This is the site of the most devastating terrorist attack on US soil; to many, it is hallowed ground.  

Right now, it's a gigantic hole at the end of the island, a cavernous construction site surrounded by tourists snapping photos of what used to be there and now is not.  I wish that I had taken a photograph of the scene last October, but it felt awfully ghoulish at the time.  Imagine New York City sized crowds of Wall Street workers and Japanese tourists and Mennonite ladies with their hair in white snoods and groups of school kids and families on vacation and all of them crowded around what in any other location would be Men At Work.  Interesting, perhaps, if you are a 5 year old boy, but otherwise unremarkable.  There was no sense of reverence amongst the looky-loos.  Curiosity, perhaps, but it was lacking the sense of place which envelops the visitor to Gettysburg or the Oklahoma City memorial

which, as you can see from this photo I took in June, 2007, is right in the middle of downtown Oklahoma City.  That's a real traffic light right there at the entrance to the memorial.  There's an active church across the street, and businesses flourish on all sides.  The outer fence is reminiscent of other such fences

and the inside is peaceful and haunting, as everyone who died in the blast is commemorated by a single chair,

big ones for adults, little ones for the kids.
It's the most beautiful monument.

But we are back in New York City, where the construction site is undecorated and the panels detailing the history of the devastation are curiously lifeless, somewhat austere in their black and white recitation of a nightmare.
There was a competition to create a beautiful monument at Ground Zero and a similar one for the right to design the overall parcel, or parcels, depending upon who was insuring you in September, 2001.  This being New York, there were arguments and delays and much discussion and controversy and time passed and Studio Libeskind seems to have disappeared from the scene as David Childs was brought in to work on the Freedom Towers.  It is now 10 years after and the place is still a construction site.  

At this point, I think I'd be satisfied with a swing set and some grass.  Perhaps a bench or two and a pond?  That's kind of what Michael Arad and Peter Walker had in mind with their winning design,  Reflecting Absence.

Right now, though, the only that is absent is the memorial itself.So, when protesters complain about the construction of a mosque on the site I am tempted to say "Just build something, anything, just do it."

But that's just the physical side of the equation.  I hate to see the city that has always represented fast paced for me be so dilatory.  While seeking to satisfy everyone they have accomplished little.  And time has passed.  I'm feeling an implied insult to the phrase a New York minute here, and it's kinda pissing me off.

Deeper down, though, where the ache is, comes my worry about the USA.  Only here could such a conversation take place.  Only here can the enemy of the government declare its opposition aloud, with impunity, knowing that the basis for this freedom is part of what makes this the USA.  It wasn't tacked on to a monarchy-turned-quasi-democratic-republic or a soviet-socialist-republic-gone-21st century.  No, it was there from the beginning.  We can believe what we want.  We can say what we want.  We can gather where we want.  And as long as we don't injure another person in the doing, we're cool.

I suppose that injury is the stumbling block here.  No one is suggesting that all New Yorkers should have to attend this mosque.  No one would deny protesters their right to declare that they find the building offensive, just as anti-abortion activists are allowed to protest at clinics.  But to say that the mosque should not exist at all feels down-right un-American.

If you disagree, please take a deep breath and read on.  I'd love to hear reactions, but I can feel people starting to scream at their monitors.  I'm not advocating the establishment of a shrine to the monsters who flew those planes into the Twin Towers that morning.  I'm suggesting that we honor the diversity and the acceptance of differences that makes us the country that we are.  Of course, we are not perfect.  We've had to pass legislation outlawing discrimination based on skin color...... which I hope will seem absurd to Mr. 7 when he's reading about it in high school.... he's living with parents who were born a decade after the Civil Rights Acts were passed.  He and his brother have never known a time when it was ok to deny someone a place in line, a glass of milk, a job or a train ticket because of the color of his skin.  We've never needed legislation to guarantee the sanctity of one's religious beliefs; it's been right there since the beginning
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
in Amendment 1 to the Constitution, ratified on December 15, 1791.  It seems to me that having a place to gather is a necessary part of the free exercise thereof.  So, what's the problem, people?

As long as the congregants are not followers of Osama bin Laden, I'm not sure that there's a valid reason to prohibit the erection of a mosque at Ground Zero.  In fact, assuming that the people behind the mosque are not advocating the extermination of us heathens (and I'm going to investigate that and find the truth and share it with you .... soon.....)  then I think it's the most beautiful expression of our values that can possibly be created.

Some of them hurt us.  Some of them live among us.  We are a melting pot, a marvelous stew of Wiccans and Presbyterians and about a zillion variations on Jewish and the fact that we can allow... accept.... encourage... permit a mosque at the site of a horrific national tragedy in which some of their co-religionists were culpable, well that's just the wonderfulness that is our country.  

Remember that church I mentioned earlier?  The one across the street from the Oklahoma City memorial?  If it turned out that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were members of that faith, that faith that celebrates its separateness right across the street from the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, the building whose remaining walls frame the memorial to the victims of our home-grown terrorists who destroyed it ... well... what do you think?  Should we tear it down?

Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks expressed my feelings exactly this morning on MSNBC.  I tried to embed the video, but you'll just have to click here and see for yourself.  It was kind of freaky, since TBG had just been asking for my opinion after finding himself coming down on the No Way side of things.  If we love America and Americans then we have to be willing to stretch our comfort zone.  Because whatever we believe ourselves is bound to be offensive to someone else.  

And yet we all get to vote.

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