“Let me be clear.” Uh oh. If you’ve been following this Presidency at all you know that those words almost always signal that he is about to utter a very unclear statement. It has essentially become his rhetorical fingerprint, his unique way of letting people know a talking point is on the way. His latest “let me be clear” came at a White House dinner while he was speaking about the Ground Zero mosque.
He went on, “As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.”
Pretty clear, right? Can’t be much more direct than that. He’s all for building the mosque in lower Manhattan. Politico went as far as to call it an “unexpectedly direct endorsement of the mosque.”
Then President Obama stuck his finger into the wind and felt it blowing in the opposite direction. A recent CNN poll found that a strong majority, 68% of those polled, oppose the “plan to build a mosque two blocks from the site in New York City where the World Trade Center used to stand.” Suddenly Obama’s statement became not so clear. On Saturday Obama “clarified” his support for the mosque saying he “was not commenting…on the wisdom of making the decisions to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding.”
Obama’s waffling is the latest sign of the political uncertainty facing Democrats this fall, but his two comments represent the competing viewpoints on the mosque. Is it a matter that should be framed purely in terms of religious freedom? Or should the site and time make us question the wisdom of this particular mosque, outside the framework of the Constitution?
The Constitutional Argument:
First, let’s clear up some misconceptions about the “Ground Zero mosque.” It won’t be where the twin towers stood; it will be two blocks away. The “hallowed ground” that it will inhabit is actually an old Burlington Coat Factory. The mosque will not even be the first to be near the World Trade Center, another already stands about a half of a block away from the proposed site, having existed for nearly 40 years without a whiff of controversy.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has become the main champion of the free speech justification for allowing the Ground Zero mosque. In an impassioned and clearly heartfelt speech Bloomberg said,
“Part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11, 2001. . . The attack was an act of war, and our first responders defended not only our city, but our country and our Constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.”
This is a nation of immigrants. Moreover, New York’s Ellis Island was the destination for many of these early migrants. This is not to say that there hasn’t been assimilation difficulties. As Bloomberg points out in his speech, New York’s history is spotted by episodes such as: a petition to build a Jewish synagogue being denied, Quakers being prevented from holding meetings, and Catholics prohibited from practicing at all. Haven’t we learned from this? Will we not look back in a hundred years and wonder why our intolerance persisted? Aren’t the Muslims of today facing the same persecution as the Jews and Catholics of yesteryear?
Perhaps more importantly, this line of thought relies on the blindness of the Constitution. That statement is not meant as a critique. The document does not take into account context, not time, not place, not the social mood of the day; no, it is meant as an enduring an inflexible statement of our country’s founding principles. Everyone has the right to speak freely, not just in times of peace. Everyone has the right to peaceably assemble, not just on politically correct issues. Everyone has the right to practice religion, regardless of the proximity to Ground Zero. Forget poll numbers, popular sentiment, and making hurt people feel better – this is about enforcing a document that has set us apart from the rest of the world – one displaying our ultimate belief in freedom.
The Wisdom Argument:
This argument concedes that the Islamic center has a right to build the mosque near ground zero under the Constitution. Instead, they argue, that out of respect for the tragedy that occurred here the mosque shouldn’t be built. Before getting to the core of the argument let’s set aside some of the Leftist feints designed to distract those truly attempting to consider the issues. This is not an argument moored in xenophobia. The argument does not live or die with the idea that the proposed mosque is part of an Islamic takeover of the United States. Let us toss aside notions of nativist panic, a they-took-our-jobs mentality, and a politicizing of race; this is about preserving the dignity and memory of a place.
This line of thought is best expressed by House Republican Leader John Boehner who said “The fact that someone has the right to do something doesn’t necessarily make it the right thing to do. That is the essence of tolerance, peace and understanding. This is not an issue of law, whether religious freedom or local zoning. This is a basic issue of respect for a tragic moment in our history.”
This argument understands that the members of the Ground Zero mosque should not be equated with the radical and extremist elements of Islam that perpetrated the terrorist plot that will be forever associated with the land. Nevertheless, as Charles Krauthammer points out, despite the fact that nobody confuses present day Germany with Nazi Germany, “no German of goodwill would even think of proposing a German cultural center at, say, Treblinka.”
The reason is because of an acute sensitivity to the eternal ghost of tragedy that looms over certain places. This is not the time nor the place for a debate over political correctness or even the unspoken limits of the First Amendment, this is a time and place for quiet reverence for the loss of American lives. As Bonnie McEnearney, the widow of one of the victims of 9/11, says
“All of us try to maintain a healthy emotional and spiritual balance and continue to try to move forward. But somehow the news constantly brings us back. The day is a constant frame of reference in our lives, and the life of our country. So I can understand the reaction to this. It’s why I keep coming back to what I believe is the central issue here, and that is sensitivity.”
Of course Muslims should be treated to the same spiritual freedoms that the rest of society enjoys, but they should also attempt to achieve the same level of understanding about what 9/11 means to that society.
There are No Winners Here
Is either argument correct? Does either argument matter? Should this be up to the talking heads, the politicians, and the greater public to decide, or is this a peculiar issue, one in which the views of the 9/11 survivors should be granted extra weight. Regardless of the answer, I hope that before President Obama, or any politician, decides to say “let me be clear” on an issue as sensitive as this, he gives due reverence to history.
by Brandon Greife, Political Director of the College Republican National Committee