August 19, 2010
Much of this country suffers from a collective post- traumatic stress disorder. Almost nine years after the shock of 9/11, we still have nightmares. We try to put it all behind us, to look to the future, to get on with our lives, but as with soldiers shaken by the constant surprise of the roadside bomb and the suicide bomber, any little thing can set us off, drive us crazy with fear.
What's set the country off now is mosques — the mosque going up on that parking lot down the street, that mosque proposed for the long-empty convent next to the Catholic church, and most pointedly this week, the mosque and Islamic cultural center slated to be built two blocks from where the Twin Towers once stood.
It's hard to get past the paranoia. Even the most responsible non-Muslims feel a twinge of it. It takes an act of the will to separate fact from fear, and the fact that Islam as a religion cannot be equated with terrorism can't keep people from fearing that it actually is, can't keep them from regarding all Muslims, even their neighbors, with secret suspicion.
Fanning the embers of suspicion are pundits and politicians who should know, and do know, what results their remarks will cause. The most vile example to date is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who declared on national television Sunday that "Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. ... There's no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center."
Islam = terrorism.
President Obama himself got caught in the thicket of the Ground Zero controversy by singling it out in his otherwise balanced speech at the White House Ramadan dinner last Friday. After reiterating the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, he said: "Recently, attention has been focused on the construction of mosques in certain communities — particulary in the City of New York."
Ouch! He could have confronted what appears to be a widening national problem by invoking the First Amendment against bigotry everywhere and anywhere — a problem which New York Times religion writer Laurie Goldstein brought to light days before his speech, in an article citing people's opposition to mosques all over the country, from Tennessee to Temecula. The issue, she wrote, has metastasized from "traffic, parking and noise — the same reasons they may object to a church or synagogue," to "Islam itself," where their argument is "that even the most Americanized Muslim secretly wants to replace the Constitution with Islamic Shariah law."
The President could have alerted the nation as a whole to the cancerous threats to liberty growing within their own communities, but instead he chose to target the Ground Zero issue, one immeasurably more sensitive and complex: "And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances."
The following day, he told a reporter: "I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That's what our country is about."
Despite the assessment of some individuals that he was "backpedaling" on the Ground Zero question, I think his clarification was right: Given a nation gripped by PTSD, is it wise to build an ostentatious Islamic cultural complex two blocks from the symbol of terror?
I'll deal with the Ground Zero specifics in next week's column.