What's Truly at Stake in the Ground Zero Mosque Debate

Aug 17, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

The controversy over the proposed Muslim community center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero rages on, with President Obama issuing unequivocal support Friday night on Constitutional grounds, while asserting the next day that he will not comment on the "wisdom" of the decision to build it at that location.

On the other side, shameless politicizing radical right-wing fanatics like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich are fanning the flames of hatred with their incendiary rhetoric, comparing Muslims behind the mosque project to Nazis and serving as the self-anointed spokespeople for 9/11 victims and their families.

But the truth is, not every 9/11 family opposes the center. In fact, there's quite a large group of supporters.

"There is no simple, singular 9/11 group who really should or could speak for all 9/11 family members," said Donna Marsh O'Connor of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a coalition of over 250 families who support the building of the mosque. O'Connor's 29-year-old pregnant daughter was killed in one of the World Trade Center towers. "This is not a small issue, this is what America has always been -- a place where people come to escape religious persecution. I can understand people saying that this is a slap. This does hurt. But we don't change fundamentally what our nation is about because it will hurt people."

Charles Wolf of New York City lost his wife, Katherine, 56, in the attacks. He supports the mosque "100 percent."

Herb Ouida's son Todd died on 9/11, and warns against harsh tone of the opposition. He said, "What we are doing is we are saying to the world that we are at war with Islam. And we can't be. I want my grandchildren to live in a better world."

Frank Tatum's mother was killed in the attacks as well. "I think it's important not to give into the hysteria. We do have religious freedom. I know the wounds are still very open, me myself included but you have to look at the big picture. You can't practice these freedoms only when it suits us. You have to practice them all along."

First responders have also voiced their support for the mosque. Former Emergency Medical Services worker Marvin Bethea, 50, was forced to retire six years ago because of 9/11-related breathing problems. "Even though my life has changed, I don't hate the Muslims....I understand the families are hurt and lost, but how do you sit here and condemn all Muslims as being terrorists? That's just bigotry and hatred. We're a better nation than that. The diversity that we have, this is what New York is about. But we have such prejudices, some of us. We have a long way to go."

Some claim that the building of a mosque so close to Ground Zero dishonors those who died that day. But I'd like to suggest the opposite; the the mosque actually honors the dead by symbolizing the upholding of the laws and freedoms that make America great. I cringe at the thought that those who died so innocently that fateful day would condone the mass discrimination of an entire religion of people in the name of revenge. That's no honor.

We live in a nation of laws. And we live by the rule of law. And the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. We don't govern in some ad hoc, knee-jerk, arbitrary manner based on the prejudices, sensitivities or whims of a select few. We also don't govern based on majority rule. If that were the case, despicable groups like the KKK and white supremacists would not be able to march and protest in places like Selma, Ala and Skokie, Ill against the wishes of blacks, Jews and others who find such activity highly insensitive and offensive, and rightly so. But the Constitution is quite clear about the freedoms we enjoy such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom to assemble, as well as the laws that prohibit religious discrimination. Sorry, but there's no gray area here. We may not like the words or actions of some people or groups and might find them reprehensible, but that still doesn't give us the right to impose our views on the rest of society and expect decisions to be made based on those narrow judgements.

We cannot become a nation where we allow the squeakiest wheel of ignorance and intolerance to get the most grease. We also don't live in a nation where victims of a crime, or their families, get to rewrite the Constitution... no matter how sensitive we are to their pain and suffering.

It's dangerous to suggest that the entire Muslim faith--and by extension the proposed mosque or mosques in general--is fundamentally incompatible with American pluralism, and therefore poses a greater risk to our citizenry than other faiths and houses of worship. And we cannot allow the 9/11 attacks to be used as a pawn in the political and race/religion wars. Let's remember, we're at war with al Qaeda, not Islam.

To be sure, some will find the mosque's location a 'slap in the face' and an act of supreme insensitivity to the families of those who died on that horrific day. But where do we draw that line in deciding the who/what/where of this community center? Is two blocks too close? Should it be three? Five? Ten? Should we also shut down the area's other mosques, Muslim prayer centers which have existed peacefully in the community for many years prior to 9/11? What about the area's strip clubs? Do we close them down too because some might find them offensive and a 'slap' as well? And who gets to decide all this? Clearly, there's strong, passionate views on both sides of this issue, and especially from the 9/11 families. Which is why Constitutional law should be the engine that drives this debate and not the very personal, subjective views of some.