The mosque at Ground Zero in New York is all they can talk about in the news, the talk shows, the gas station, and for reasons I can’t even figure out, SportsTalk. Obviously, the proposed building of an Islamic Community center, complete with mosque, has hit a very raw nerve with a lot of Americans. According to a CNN poll, 70% of Americans oppose the building of this community center/mosque.
Obviously, we haven’t forgotten that horrible day when hate motivated crazy people flew airplanes into buildings, killed thousands and changed the Americans saw themselves and the world. We learned that some had declared us to be the enemy in large part because of the freedoms we cherish. It seemed incomprehensible that we could be hated so much for some of the very things that made us who we are.
But now, 70% of Americans want to tell a congregation of other Americans who had nothing to do with the hate that flew those airplanes into those buildings that they are not free to worship where they want, that they are not welcome to assemble where they want, or say what they want. Seventy percent of Americans do not want the freedoms and rights we are guaranteed as Americans to apply to one group of people because some who claim to be believers in the same faith have used it for evil.
I think we should be very, very careful. When we start limiting the protections of the constitution to people we like, it ceases to protect any of us. The founders of our country, in part, came here to gain the freedom to worship when and where they wanted to, the freedom to worship publicly and not hide from those who did not agree with them. Do we really want to deny any congregation that right? How long before someone decides that the safest thing is to deny all religious groups the right to assemble, to build places of worship, or to speak publicly about their faith? I don’t think it’s such a big jump from one incident to the other.
We also need to be very, very careful about hate. Hate killed those thousands of people that morning, not religion. The followers of Islam do not have a corner on the hate market, by the way. There are sadly groups in almost any faith, and none, who have bent their beliefs into something hateful. One of my favorite West Wing episodes is the one they ran a few days after 9/11, called Isaac and Ishmael. In it, one of the characters poses this SAT-like question: “Al Quaeda is to Islam as ——– is to Christianity. And the answer, scholars? THE KKK. Hate groups, both. Capable of unspeakable violence, both. Claimed by their leaders to be linked to faith, both. Representative of the real followers of Islam or Christianity, neither. In the same West Wing episode, another character says: “My father had a friend who was in one of the camps (WWII Nazi concentration camps). He said one day he saw someone in the camp praying. He asked him what he was doing. He said ‘thanking God.” My father’s friend asked him what on earth he could be thanking God for. He said, ‘Not making me like them.’ Bad people can’t be recognized on sight. There’s no use trying.”
There has been a lot of discussion about what should be built at Ground Zero. Many people want to make sure that it is a proper memorial to all the innocent lives that were lost that day. Some of the proposals, though, seem less like a memorial to the thousands of individuals who went to work that morning and lost their lives to hate, and more of a monument to the horrific event itself. That event represents evil, pure hate and evil. If we build a monument to that evil and hate, the memories of those innocent lives will be lost. All anyone will remember is the hate.
Years ago I went with my father to the Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor. My most striking memory from that visit is the sight of my father standing on the foredeck of the tour boat next to a Japanese man approximately his age. The events of December 7, 1941 changed my father’s life forever. Within months, at 17, he was on a boat in the middle of the South Pacific headed for war. I’m sure those events changed the life of the Japanese man, too. Who knows, they may have seen each other, fought each other. But the monument they stood in front was about brave men to died on that December morning, not about war, or hate. They were able to stand there and think of the events of that day, of the lives lost, and of the lives changed without hate. The memorial was about the people who died there, their bravery and service, not about the evil of war.
Whatever is built at Ground Zero, it must be a memorial where the people who lost their lives are remembered, including the 70 or so people of Islamic background or faith who just went to work that day, not hating anyone, and died. It needs to be completely American and that means it cannot be built upon hate or fear, or the denial of the rights guaranteed us all. We do not honor hate and fear.