A place is made sacred by a widespread belief that it was visited by the miraculous or the transcendent (Lourdes, the Temple Mount), by the presence there once of great nobility and sacrifice (Gettysburg), or by the blood of martyrs and the indescribable suffering of the innocent (Auschwitz).
When we speak of Ground Zero as hallowed ground, what we mean is that it belongs to those who suffered and died there — and that such ownership obliges us, the living, to preserve the dignity and memory of the place, never allowing it to be forgotten, trivialized or misappropriated.
That’s why Disney’s 1993 proposal to build an American history theme park near Manassas Battlefield was defeated by a broad coalition that feared vulgarization of the Civil War (and that was wiser than me; at the time I obtusely saw little harm in the venture). It’s why the commercial viewing tower built right on the border of Gettysburg was taken down by the Park Service. It’s why, while no one objects to Japanese cultural centers, the idea of putting one up at Pearl Harbor would be offensive.
And why Pope John Paul II ordered the Carmelite nuns to leave the convent they had established at Auschwitz. He was in no way devaluing their heartfelt mission to pray for the souls of the dead. He was teaching them a lesson in respect: This is not your place; it belongs to others. However pure your voice, better to let silence reign.
Even New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who denounced opponents of the proposed 15-story mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero as tramplers on religious freedom, asked the mosque organizers “to show some special sensitivity to the situation.” Yet, as columnist Rich Lowry pointedly noted, the government has no business telling churches how to conduct their business, shape their message or show “special sensitivity” to anyone about anything. Bloomberg was thereby inadvertently conceding the claim of those he excoriates for opposing the mosque, namely that Ground Zero is indeed unlike any other place and therefore unique criteria govern what can be done there.
Bloomberg’s implication is clear: If the proposed mosque were controlled by “insensitive” Islamist radicals either excusing or celebrating 9/11, he would not support its construction.
But then, why not? By the mayor’s own expansive view of religious freedom, by what right do we dictate the message of any mosque? Moreover, as a practical matter, there’s no guarantee that this couldn’t happen in the future. Religious institutions in this country are autonomous. Who is to say that the mosque won’t one day hire an Anwar al-Aulaqi — spiritual mentor to the Fort Hood shooter and the Christmas Day bomber, and onetime imam at the Virginia mosque attended by two of the 9/11 terrorists?
An Aulaqi preaching in Virginia is a security problem. An Aulaqi preaching at Ground Zero is a sacrilege. Or would the mayor then step in — violating the same First Amendment he grandiosely pretends to protect from mosque opponents — and exercise a veto over the mosque’s clergy?
Location matters. Especially this location. Ground Zero is the site of the greatest mass murder in American history — perpetrated by Muslims of a particular Islamist orthodoxy in whose cause they died and in whose name they killed.
Of course that strain represents only a minority of Muslims. Islam is no more intrinsically Islamist than present-day Germany is Nazi — yet despite contemporary Germany’s innocence, no German of goodwill would even think of proposing a German cultural center at, say, Treblinka.
Which makes you wonder about the goodwill behind Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s proposal. This is a man who has called U.S. policy “an accessory to the crime” of 9/11 and, when recently asked whether Hamas is a terrorist organization, replied, “I’m not a politician. . . . The issue of terrorism is a very complex question.”
America is a free country where you can build whatever you want — but not anywhere. That’s why we have zoning laws. No liquor store near a school, no strip malls where they offend local sensibilities, and, if your house doesn’t meet community architectural codes, you cannot build at all.
These restrictions are for reasons of aesthetics. Others are for more profound reasons of common decency and respect for the sacred. No commercial tower over Gettysburg, no convent at Auschwitz — and no mosque at Ground Zero.
Build it anywhere but there.
The governor of New York offered to help find land to build the mosque elsewhere. A mosque really seeking to build bridges, Rauf’s ostensible hope for the structure, would accept the offer.