I may be alone here, but I'm finding the debate over the building of a mosque-that-isn't-a-mosque at an-area-somewhat-near Ground Zero just plain wearying.
In a summer of real news -- floods, fires, landslides, earthquakes, oil spills, and grinding economic gloom and doom, things that cause real pain and hardship and that may be the sign of a long and deadly new phase in human life on this planet -- we seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time arguing about something that has absolutely no impact on the lives of anyone who is not a Muslim living in Manhattan.
There's no mystery as to why conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin are focusing on this now: it's 77 days until the 2010 midterm elections, and they want to energize their Republican base to get themselves to the polls when the big day arrives. Ginning up the instinctual Islamophobia of white Christians has been a winning strategy for almost a decade now.
Throw in a President who an appalling number of Americans still believe is a closet Muslim and who makes a ringing statement about religious freedom and the spirit of America one day while calling "backsies!" the next, and you've got yourself blog-around-the-clock gold.
Why does this work? Ross Douthat makes the Two Americas argument in the Times this morning: one is constitutional and one is cultural, and they have been in conflict throughout our history. Call it the American version of the "clash of civilizations," upper-class intellectuals versus lower-class emotionalists. To an extent, he's right, and because it is so deeply embedded in our national psyche, I suspect we're going to end the "Ground Zero Mosque" debate roughly where we began it.
To me, the troubling aspect is that the 9/11 aspect of the story. I think we all understand the passion of those who lost loved ones in the Trade Center attacks or those who helped in the aftermath that are still dealing with the physical and psychological fallout of their service. It's the passion of everyone else that gets a little perplexing. Too many of us see ourselves as emotional stakeholders in an event which only very lightly touched us.
Some years back, I was commissioned to write some short essays about 9/11 for a book, and this involved reading hundreds of newspaper articles from the days immediately following the attacks. Every story was pretty much the same: The smoke, the explosions, the people hanging from the windows, jumping out of the windows from the upper tiers of the Towers, the flutter of millions of pieces of paper, the roiling black cloud of debris as each Tower collapsed, the hundreds of desperate "missing" posters tacked up along the streets.
Nearly a decade after the fact, I see those same images evoked by politicians and opinion-makers and average Janes and Joes, often whether they were in New York that day or not -- and those same images are being use against the designers and backers of the proposed cultural center on Park Place, even those none of the them had anything to do with, or knew anyone who had anything to do with, the 9/11 attacks.
There is a fine line between respectful commemoration of the dead and disaster porn. Like all porn, you know it when you see it. I found my line in an Huffington Post blog last night.
After reciting in detail all the horrible things he had seen on 9/11, blogger Robert Learsy went on to decry not so much the idea of a mosque (which was offensive enough), but of a community center with "a swimming pool, a theater, where one is meant to come play and frolic, to be entertained at the very site where thousands of Americans horrifically lost their lives smacks of gross insensitivity or worse yet, triumphalism."
Putting aside the whole "at the very site" nonsense, or the canard of "triumphalism" by people who had absolutely nothing to do with those horrifically lost lives, I was nauseated at the the world Learsy seems to desire.
I would like to think that somewhere in the, say, two-mile radius around 1 World Trade Center sometime in the last nine years, someone has giggled. Or frolicked. Or done a cartwheel. Or taken a dip in the pool at the YMCA on West 14th Street. Or taken in a movie at the Regal 11 on North End Avenue. And I would like to think that the souls of those who died in the attack are happy that life has gone on, that their city and their country did not become a place of hatred and suspicion and invective.
If we have to be stakeholders, let's do it right. Moving forward does not mean forgetting the dead. It doesn't always have to be the morning of September 11. We can not only survive a Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, we can embrace it, and we can be better people for it.