First, let’s remove the morally challenged, the grifters and the wildly incompetent from the mosque debate. I’m referring to the likes of Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and associated scoundrels in Congress, all of whom are playing off the nincompoop Fox News team. The “Islamic radical” they reported as being behind this dastardly Mosque/community center project? He turned out to be the largest minority shareholder of — Fox News!
What a small world: He turned out to be a Saudi friend of Rupert’s.
So if we can remove the most hysterical, we’re left with those who argue that to permit Muslims to build “near Ground Zero” insults all Americans and ignores the feelings of the families and friends of those who died on Sept. 11, 2001. The more liberal of these critics argue the project should be relocated farther away (though it begs asking the question of how far is far enough). The less thoughtful demand Muslims not be permitted to build anywhere in New York. Their comparison of choice is Pearl Harbor. Would a Japanese memorial at Pearl Harbor be permitted or appropriate?
This comparison is misguided. Japan was a nation-state; America wasn’t attacked on 9/11 by a nation-state. We were attacked, in the words of one Muslim scholar, “by 19 Muslim thugs.” Moreover, there were many Muslims who died in the attacks that day.
Which brings me to the very bad idea that is now driving the debate. Lacking a nation-state to blame, critics of the project propose to hold an entire religion responsible for the thuggery perpetrated by a few of its members.
It’s a slippery slope if there ever was one. Timothy McVeigh was raised a Catholic, so should we have blamed the Catholic Church for his heinous crime? Indeed, the Catholic Church has erected a memorial that sits closer to the Murrah Building than the community center will be to the World Trade Center site. An insult to the memory of the dead in Oklahoma City? Who would draw that idiotic conclusion?
Or consider all of the white supremacist hoodlums who, well into the mid-1960s, marched in those silly-looking white robes while toting burning crosses. No one, so far as I know, held Protestant Christianity responsible for the terrible crimes committed by the Ku Klux Klan — crimes that included murders, lynchings and virulent terror tactics.
And how about the Protestant “Know-Nothing Party” of the 1840s? The bishop of the New York Diocese felt the need to call out parishioners to defend St. Patrick’s Cathedral by force of arms against these ever-so-sincere anti-Catholics who believed they were saving America from papism.
Then there were all those Confederate flags that, until recently, flew over state houses throughout the South. Display of the flag was an issue in South Carolina as recently as 10 years ago. When we strip away all the regional chest-pounding and romantic nonsense, we are left with 13 states that effectively committed treason against the United States and caused a war to be waged, resulting in the deaths of more than 600,000 human beings.
Back to Japan: Here we did have a state-sponsored sneak attack announcing an obvious enemy and thus inviting the strongest response, surely right there at “ground zero” in Hawaii. But, no, it didn’t happen. The Japanese-American internment policy (a euphemism for concentration camps) excluded Hawaii. Fewer than 2,000 there were sent to camps.
Why? Two reasons. First, if you tossed every Japanese person living in Hawaii into a concentration camp in 1942, there wouldn’t have been enough people left on the islands to keep the economy afloat. (When push comes to shove, jobs matter most.) And second, because of their numbers, Japanese in Hawaii weren’t subject to anywhere near the racially motivated suspicion we saw elsewhere.
The New York situation draws our attention to the still-important book co-authored by the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In Beyond the Melting Pot, he argued that accommodation has been at least as significant, perhaps more significant, to the New York experience as assimilation. Accommodation refers to “live and let live.”
Assimilation refers to a common culture.
No city has confronted greater accommodation and assimilation challenges than New York. Boston had its Irish and Italians. Chicago, its Poles and Irish. San Francisco, its Italians and Chinese. Los Angeles — more recently — its Hispanics.
New York has had all these and more. The city’s vitality has depended on accepting live-andlet-live while promoting common culture.
Along comes the New York Muslim community, seeking to reach out in a non-Muslim neighborhood in need, it turns out, of economic development — that is, to offer up a dash of assimilation.
Not only is their proposal legal, it offers New York an almost sublime chance to do what it does best — seize on opportunities to encourage assimilation at critical times and places.
Moreover, by not caving to fear-mongering, New York actually honors the 9/11 dead whose daily lives were testament to just what New York is all about — never giving in, whether attacked by thugs or mugged by demagogues. It’s a swaggering city of strain and tension, but a city that has never had much patience for people motivated by crass political expediency — especially when they cheapen tragedies and acts of heroism.