Ground zero for freedom
The mosque should be built precisely because we don’t like the idea very much. We don’t need constitutional protections to be agreeable, after all.
This point surpasses even all the obvious reasons for allowing the mosque, principally that there’s no law against it. Precluding any such law, we let people worship when and where they please. That it hurts some people’s feelings is, well, irrelevant in a nation of laws. And don’t we, really, want to keep it that way?
Confession: I would prefer that the mosque not be built so close to the ground where nearly 3,000 innocent souls perished. That’s my personal feeling, especially as I imagine the suffering of so many families whose loved ones died in the conflagration.
But why do so many Americans also feel this way? The answer is inherent in the question. Feeling is emotion, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it bears watching.
Reason tells us something else: The Muslims who want to build this mosque didn’t fly airplanes into skyscrapers. They don’t support terrorism. By what understanding do we assign guilt to all for the actions of a relative few?
Even so, as others have pointed out, civilized people and nations are careful to avoid trespassing on the sorrow, suffering and sacrifice we associate with hallowed grounds. As Charles Krauthammer pointed out, Pope John Paul II ordered Carmelite nuns to abandon a convent they had established at Auschwitz, among other examples.
We would like to think that others would be as respectful of our own horrors. And yet, we should beware what we demand lest others demand the same of us. Count the number of times we’ve heard “sensitivity” invoked the past several days. Muslims should be more sensitive to the families of those who perished, we’ve heard repeatedly.
Even the Anti-Defamation League, defender of religious freedom, urged the mosque’s leaders to situate the building farther from Ground Zero—out of sensitivity.
We couldn’t agree more, and yet it goes without saying—even if President Barack Obama felt it necessary to state—that American Muslims have the same right as any other citizen to practice their religion and to build on private property.
Some might wish that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who is behind the proposal, were more sensitive, though opinions are mixed. Others have argued that a moderate Muslim such as Rauf is just the sort of person we hope will help influence a more-moderate Islam. Might an Islamic center near the spot where the religion’s worst adherents slaughtered thousands, including fellow Muslims, be useful to that end?
These are all reasonable arguments. But the more compelling point is that mosque opponents may lose by winning. Radical Muslims have set cities afire because their feelings were hurt. When a Muslim murdered filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam, it was because his feelings were hurt. Ditto the Muslims who rioted about cartoons depicting the image of Muhammad and sent frightened doodlers into hiding.
The idea that one should never have one’s feelings hurt—and the violent means to which some will resort in the protection of their own self-regard—has done harm rivaling evil. It isn’t a stretch to say that the greatest threat to free speech is, in fact, “sensitivity.”
This is why plans for the mosque at Ground Zero should be allowed to proceed, if that’s what Muslims want. We teach tolerance by being tolerant. We can’t insist that our freedom of speech allows us to draw cartoons or produce plays that Muslims find offensive, and then demand that they be more sensitive to our feelings.
More to the point, the tolerance we urge the Muslim world to embrace as we exercise our right to free expression, and revel in the glory and the gift of irreverence, is the very same we must embrace when Muslims seek to express themselves peacefully.
Nobody ever said freedom would be easy. We are daily challenged to reconcile what is allowable and what is acceptable. Compromise, sometimes maddening, is part of the bargain. We let the Ku Klux Klan march, not because we agree with them, but because they have a right to display their hideous ignorance.
Ultimately, when sensitivity becomes a cudgel against lawful expressions of speech or religious belief—or disbelief—the loser is all of us.