Now look, I would actually prefer the soft jolt of this nighttime beacon to all the tearful, vengeful talking that will ensue – it actually seems commensurate with the events themselves: no words, seen from afar, it just happens and demands some kind of reflection, and ultimately it leaves us searching and feeling adrift. Unfortunately, and I think this is because we are an impressionable and deliberate people, the opening that such a spectral image provides is going to be immediately filled in with a variety of narratives. We will be told to be unwavering, to dig our heels in and find our mettle, to never forget; and we will congratulate ourselves on the enormity of the event that we have withstood – in a manner that I suspect has been found rightly offensive to the many people and students of history who know that “thousands dead” is an almost daily occurrence throughout the world. That fact doesn’t need to diminish anything. In fact if anything it ought to be (to borrow from current discourse) a kind of “message force multiplier”: We are a part of this vulnerable world. Or, perhaps, we were, for a moment, before wrenching ourselves apart from it and asserting our role as the standard-bearer for law and conduct. But this has been said before and need not be repeated here at much length – that we squandered an enormous amount of good will and collective empathy by lashing out in every direction at things deemed un-American. What concerns me now is that, over the course of the last decade, this battle has been brought home with laser-like intensity. Foreign policy has become domestic policy. The enemy is no longer out there; the enemy is in our midst, among us, laying eggs and taking root.
What distinguishes this September in New York from all the others is the sudden outcry against the proposed Islamic Community Center in our city’s downtown. This was not an issue when it was proposed and it is a project that has the approval of the mayor and the downtown community, to say nothing of the genuine interest it has sparked in many around the world. Again the world is watching and praying for something resembling common sense and basic humanism in America; something that says we don’t hate you or consider you to be a lesser form of citizen. Think of Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo – think whatever you will of it – at the very least it promised equanimity and acknowledgment of Islam as a legitimate social and spiritual entity in the world and in this country, specifically. No more, but no less, than Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism or Buddhism. Think, then, of all the arguments for bringing democracy and freedom to Iraq and Afghanistan – think what you will of them – they were the best possible outcome that Afghans and Iraqis might hope for as a result of foreign occupation. If we can hold these things in mind then the message of censuring this project becomes patently offensive: We will seize and upend your country for your right to make your own decisions – as partners in peace – but we will not countenance a social center for your community in our midst. (And let us put to rest the hyperbolic notion that this is either at the center of Ground Zero or a simple mosque. This is a community center in the neighborhood that happens to have a huge need for development, in a very closely compacted city, with a significant population of Muslims and other people who would be interested to visit it.)
Yet perhaps we could go even further than this by assuming the argument of the project’s opponents. It is indeed close to Ground Zero, a site where the so-called two disparate worlds of East and West were brought together in a horrific, unsparing moment. And now here is a distinguished figure from the Islamic world, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who has repeatedly condemned the September 11th attacks as a violent aberration of, and not representative of, Islam, proposing a center for understanding and outreach in an area still visibly unhealed from the event. People rush in to fill holes. Here is a modest proposal to occupy a small amount of space in an area that has been consumed by ignorance. So, we might ask, “Why shouldn’t we want such a resource in downtown New York?” Arguably it will hold answers for many of the questions that may linger about the attacks, but more importantly it will provide a place of growth and empowerment for a community that is as legitimate and entitled as any other in our country. Does one stop a “clash of civilizations” by refusing any dialogue between the two? Imagine the message of disappointment and resentment such a refusal would send to the Arab world. Or, put another way, would you rather have a library, pool, 9/11 memorial, contemplative space and day care in downtown New York or would you rather have a Burlington Coat Factory (or a Staples or a Starbucks)?
I know that when people are critical of memorial holidays it can come off as churlish and arch, and I don't want to be that anymore; I don’t want to be part of the culture of complaint, the whinging left that can never be happy unless it is battling upwards against nefarious superpowers. So I would suggest this: let us be sad for once and re-affirm our commitment to being alive while we can. Again, I know it is unpretty to conceive of tragedy as opportunity, but I am afraid that such a determination was made almost at the moment of impact (arguably well before impact, if anyone bothers to read the minutes of the cabinet meetings in Washington.) So again we are confronted with an opportunity. What stories about ourselves do we want to believe and put forth historically? What do we want to remember someday and what will make us wince? Do we want to be remembered for unconditionally defending freedom or for defensive incarceration and exclusion? I think very few people in this country can honestly look back over the past decade and feel a sense of pride – the ransacking of the public trust and the plundering of foreign soil is simply too transparent, too vast to go undocumented. But because we are a plucky sort – and this is what the rest of the world finds maddening and lamentable but also terribly endearing about us – we can begin as if we were free. We can forget some of the terrible, cynical decisions we have made and remember the truth that is self-evident to anyone who sits seriously with the idea of an indivisible human community: to do to any other only what we would do for ourselves, an idea that is held in common between all national constitutions and books of prayer.