They want to build a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero.
And the outrage burns like jet fuel, the argument billows like choking dust, the questions lacerate like flying glass: Is it right, is it decent, is it morally defensible, for developer Sharif el-Gamal of SoHo Properties to build a Muslim worship center called Cordoba House within walking distance of the place where Muslim men, acting from a perverse distortion of their religion, disintegrated thousands of lives - Muslim, Christian, Jewish, atheist and, we may presume, others.
Sally Regenhard, who lost her son in the Sept. 11 attacks, told The New York Times the idea was "sacrilege." A man named Scott Wheeler produced an ad accusing Muslims of building the mosque to "celebrate" the murders. Sarah Palin called on moderate Muslims to "refudiate" - presumably she meant "repudiate" - the idea.
And then, there is Rabbi Yaakov Thompson. In an opinion piece for the South Florida Sun Sentinel, he accused Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, leader of the group that would worship at the new facility, of taking chutzpah "to a new level," even though, he added, "I realize that those behind Cordoba House have no connection to terrorism."
That bears repeating. Though he acknowledges the people behind Cordoba House are not terrorists, the rabbi still demands New York tell them no. In so doing, he blithely legitimizes the idea that tribe is destiny, that you and I are each individually answerable for the crimes of those who merely look like, talk like, or pray like, us.
That being the case, one wonders how far from Ground Zero the rabbi would think it proper for Muslims to build? A mile? Twenty? A hundred? Or maybe nowhere within the borders of these United States.
We should not be without sympathy for those who cringe at the notion of a mosque so near Ground Zero. Memory of what happened there is burned into us all. To put a mosque there would be an unavoidably painful and provocative thing.
But the constitution does not carry an escape clause. We do not get to jettison our national ideals just because they cause pain or provoke. To the contrary, that is the time they are most severely tested and most desperately in need of defending.
And frankly, we ought to be troubled by the easy conflation of Islam and terror into which we have fallen over the last decade. Yes, we have been helped in that fall by manifold Islamic terrorists, from the Fort Hood shooter to the shoe bomber to the man who left a crude bomb in Times Square two months back. But we have also been helped in that fall by that xenophobic strain that was seemingly born in us and that, at some point or another in history, has caused us to regard Americans of Japanese, German, Iranian, Irish and French descent with the same suspicion and scorn we now reserve for Muslims.
But this blanket antipathy is now, as it was then, antithetical to what we claim to believe as Americans. How shameful was it that candidate Obama had to keep reassuring voters he wasn't a Muslim and that no one - not the candidate, not the pundits - thought to say the obvious: What if he was?
Are Muslims not Americans, too? Is that what we're saying now?
Yes, I fear terrorism. But I find I fear even more what my country has become in response to it - a nation where a "rabbi" (!) can blandly condemn someone, not for his own crimes but for the crimes of some of his tribesmen.
So yes, putting that building in that place might be painful and provocative, but it would also be a reminder of the very values the terrorists sought to kill. And we seem to need that reminder more everyday.
They want to build a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero? Let them.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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