How to Provoke
Has there ever been a more brilliant, more knowing, more effective provocation than the Cordoba-Initiative-Park51-community-center-mosque plan? Think of what has been accomplished without subjecting a single brick of the existing building to any further demolition than what took place on September 11, 2001, when the landing gear from the plane that smashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center tore through the roof of 45-47 Park Place and punched holes in the floors below. A frenzy has erupted. Americans have divided. And the unifying aspect of the al-Qaeda attacks—the way in which they reminded citizens of this country that we are all Americans first and foremost—has finally and completely dissipated.
The proposal has ignited a new culture war in the United States in which unusual lines have been drawn—with unabashedly secular liberals sternly admonishing religious conservatives about the transcendent importance of the freedom of religion. Suddenly, even property rights and building “as of right” have become sacrosanct to people and institutions who have opposed private projects in important locations all over New York City on the grounds that, say, they might cast a shadow at certain hours over a few hundred square feet in Central Park. And yet they feel free to express disgust at complaints about a mosque a few hundred feet from where the Twin Towers were destroyed—a building that would certainly cast a shadow over a Ground Zero memorial.
Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich, among others, is using Malcolm X–like rhetoric in demanding that the state or federal government “take any means necessary” to block construction—surprising words from someone who usually inveighs against the use of excessive state power.
There was a hope, at first, that September 11 was going to call a halt to our culture wars. For what we seemed to have learned, without leavening or contradiction, from the events of that day was this: it didn’t matter whether you were black or white, liberal or conservative, gay or straight—if you were an American, they wanted you dead. America, all of America, was in the crosshairs. Osama bin Laden meant to destroy the American financial system by targeting downtown Manhattan, and the American political system by targeting the Pentagon and either the White House or the Capitol (with Flight 93). No one was immune, no one was to be spared. We were all in this together.
Well, that didn’t last long. The political and ideological divide reasserted itself with astonishing speed once the country began to relax a bit after the anthrax scares and the capture of the shoe bomber and the failure of al-Qaeda to strike a second time within our borders. And through the years, the cultural fissure has opened up painfully in exactly the same way.
After September 11, many of us came to realize just how little Bin Laden and al-Qaeda understood the United States. In striking major targets in New York and Washington, they made us nationally resolute. But if they had had any sense of how to tear out the heart of America, they would have targeted six Midwest shopping malls simultaneously, or five Southern amusement parks, or a random selection of elementary schools.
I do not think Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the spiritual leader of the Ground Zero mosque, and Sharifel-Gamal, its developer, deserve any sort of comparison with Bin Laden. What they are doing is, to my way of thinking, moral theft and not mass murder, an inappropriate act of political appropriation, not a capital crime.
But Bin Laden certainly could learn from their example. In seeking to stake their claim to moral ownership of 9/11 (as Jonathan Tobin details in his brilliant article in this issue), Abdul Rauf andel-Gamal have shown just how effectively you can tear America asunder without even moving a brick.