The uproar over the construction of a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero, on private property, has all the makings of a national embarrassment; the kind that emerges once a generation and leaves the politicians behind it destined for retirement as cautionary tales.
I don’t know whether, as the media has debated, it was right or wrong for the President of the United States to speak out on the issue. That is probably a conclusion best left to the man who went through the trouble of getting elected to the office. In his remarks he noted that this is America. People have the right to develop private property. This country supports religious freedom.
The President’s speech seemed more like a statement of fact than a grandiose sales pitch for radical policy.
Those pitching the tent over this circus of bigotry are the larger concern. Two of the main acts — politicians hailing from Alaska and Nevada — have chosen to ignite an issue native to New York City. It begs the question of where they were in Manhattan when smoke enveloped downtown and the streets exploded into a chorus of sirens; from which block did they watch the fire trucks race south, toward the chaos, carrying men and women who would never see the lunch hour? Those men and women didn’t drive directly into danger for an ideology. Their motivation wasn’t their religion or in anticipation of political gain. They rode south because that’s where the trouble was.
That spirit was something we once prized in America.
Something about the willingness to politick over the ashes of that courage strikes the mind as a little perverse. We are watching a handful of our “public luminaries” vilify people who had nothing to do with the attacks of 9/11. They are asking us to deny individuals their property rights based solely on their faith. America doesn’t run ideological litmus tests before protecting rights — it shouldn’t start now, with Muslims. That would be akin to barring Americans of German descent from building near a synagogue; or barring people of Japanese descent from living in Hawaii.
We used to be too ashamed to suggest things like that in public. We had a deeper sense of self, a clearer confidence in the strength of our core principles. In the months after 9/11, in New York City, there was often “that guy” in the bar who had too much to drink and got to sounding like those currently stoking this debate. Other patrons would promptly help him locate the front door, head-first.
Back then, nearer in space and time to the heat of that day, there was a sense that our principles were our strengths; that maintaining them, above all else, was the thing that separated us from those who brought terrorism to our shores.
Most New Yorkers will tell you that the real travesty is not that a group of Muslims are building on private property near Ground Zero, but that Albany has failed to build anything on Ground Zero in the nine years since the attacks.
They will also tell you that this is a local issue, but this spectacle is a reminder that there aren’t really “local issues” anymore. Every bridge collapse and missing prom queen is instantly broadcast to every living room in America. We are all exposed to the same moments, and that’s a shame, because your elected officials once arrived in Washington from across the country with a diversity of ideas, values and opinions. The act of testing those ideas against one another strengthened our Republic. Today, with every issue nationalized, the thoughts floating around Washington are stale. Newcomers show up with views, not ideas. And every local issue that emerges suddenly gets co-opted into Sarah Palin’s ambition or Harry Reid’s last-stand desperation. We’re all on the same page. All the time. And it’s starting to feel like we’re trapped in a room where the class clown is eternally holding court.
There are political consequences on the horizon: a backlash that lies in wait for those who indulge emotion upon the national stage at the expense of our Founding principles. It will be two-fold: one lash for the error of judgment, and a deeper one for turning our attention upon this showcase of bigotry. Americans don’t like being led into the dark corners of the human spirit by their leaders, especially those who play political-hopscotch with ideological issues while the country is at war and saturated with public debt. Incumbents and the aspiring, on both sides of the aisle, will pay a price — but not before we pay a larger one.
For this mass-bigotry is more valuable than gold to those in the business of radicalization. The image of American leaders speaking so flippantly, broadcast worldwide, undercuts nearly a decade’s visible progress against radicalization. Stoking these ideological flames endangers American lives — their televised diatribes damage our efforts in places where Americans can’t cut to commercial.
It is the butterfly-effect in the age of mass communication. Those fueling this debate prolong the troubles of this world, and jeopardize the lives of those Americans who actually work in it.
Eben Carle served in the White House as an Associate Director on the Homeland Security Council from 2008-2009. He received a master’s degree in American studies from Columbia University and is currently writing his first novel.