NEW YORK -- Sarah Palin has made the Ground Zero mosque famous in "red America" with her tweets to New Yorkers, asking them to stop its construction near the site where some 3,000 victims died horribly on 9/11 at the hands of Islamic terrorists. But here in the city where it happened we've been wrestling with this issue for a while.
This is a place that is sacred ground to millions of Americans, but most principally to the loved ones of the victims -- wives, parents, children, friends -- who haven't let the passage of nearly 10 years diminish the memory of that infernal day and of the cruel sight of bodies falling from the sky.
Adding to the pain, for some, are plans to place in the same neighborhood a 15-story mega-mosque and Islamic community center. Its size, its location, and its very name -- the Cordoba House
, so named after Cordoba, Spain,
the capital of Muslim conquerors -- conjures up Islamicists' dreams of triumphalism. To an array of critics, the very idea is offensive; its construction would be a desecration. These were the feelings that Sarah Palin attempted to tap into, and she directed her appeal to moderate American Muslims, and their supporters.
Tweeting from her BlackBerry
, Palin implored, "Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn't it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate
." She likely meant "repudiate."
Bloggers went crazy. We had fun with Palin's misspellings and her flip excuse that Shakespeare also coined words. And her critics pounced.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who supports the construction
of the mosque, led the counter-response. "Sarah Palin has a right to her opinions, but I could not disagree more. Everything the United States stands for and New York stands for is tolerance and openness." He also said that Palin is "not racist, just for the record," a reference to a comment by one of his aides, who reportedly tweeted that "@SarahPalinUSA whose hearts? Racist hearts?"
The issue came before the city's Landmarks Preservation
Commission this week, which has yet to make a decision. And a big decision it is. At its heart is a disagreement between two sincere camps that harbor different views of what makes America strong.
On the one side are those who believe the United States closed its eyes for too long to the very real threat of global Islamic radicalism and the murderous attacks that Muslim terrorists perpetrate around the world. Why should we pretend that we could ever find common ground with such people or be allies to nations that export such ideology while they prevent the construction of a single temple or church on their own lands, while they send mullahs, mosques and hate-filled textbooks to ours?
On the other hand are those who believe that America's very strength is that we welcome all faiths and creeds and peoples; that, yes, you can build a mosque -- many mosques -- in New York, even near the site of a terrorist tragedy and that this doesn't weaken our resolve or our image in the world. It strengthens them.
Whatever side you're on, it's fitting that the fight over the proposed Cordoba mosque is happening here. It goes to the root of so much that defines New York City: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, politics, assembly, beliefs, and freedom to be a jerk, insensitive, greedy, stupid, intolerant and silly.
Inevitably -- and before Sarah Palin weighed in -- it had become a line in the sand between New York Democrats and their Republican opponents: Mike Bloomberg and Andrew Cuomo, the likely next governor of the state, vs. GOP gubernatorial candidates Rick Lazio and Carl Paladino
. As Bloomberg said on Thursday, neither of those guys has a prayer of winning, so they hold little sway over New Yorkers.
Aside from politics, the fight over the Ground Zero mosque and proposed mosques in Brooklyn and Staten Island (the smallest and least media-savvy of New York City boroughs) have drawn out "real people" -- ordinary folks who live in those neighborhoods -- to school auditoriums and town halls to scream and shout at one another, no one listening to anyone else, just as it happened on Monday at a raucous Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing
For better or worse, these everyday Americans voicing ferocious opposition to the mosque are making a dent.
On Thursday, the board of trustees of a Roman Catholic church on Staten Island
, whose members include Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, rejected a proposal to sell a vacant convent to a Muslim group that planned to use it as a mosque. The vote ended a vitriolic three-month fight. That other mosque construction plans across the country have faced similar opposition speaks to the fierce fears of terrorism among many Americans and its link to Islam extremists.
Why would the American Muslim leader Feisal Abdul Rauf
choose a site near Ground Zero to build a 15-story community center for Muslims? New York City has dozens of mosques which apparently are getting along fine in their neighborhoods. Why go to the very place that Americans most associate with Islamic terrorism?
Supporters of the mosque argue that there are several thousand Muslims in New York City and they need a place to pray and are within their rights to seek any space that suits them. Actually, it's not at all clear that there are thousands -- or even hundreds -- of Muslims living and working in the Lower Downtown area of Manhattan, near the pit of Ground Zero. But it doesn't really matter. Freedom of worship, assembly and speech -- the First Amendment -- is not negotiable. It is not ultimately a matter for planning boards and preservation commissions. It is our right, our inalienable right, as Americans, Christian or Muslim, native-born, or immigrant, Jew or secular citizen.