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Sacrilege at Gettysburg

September 2, 2010

On Thursday, NPR offered a tour of the neighborhood around the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan. But while Brian Reed offered a tour of the Starbucks, some Indian restaurants, a tobacconist, a strip club, a Christian Science Reading room, some churches and an Off Track Better OTB) facility near Ground Zero, another battle over hallowed ground is being waged in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Nearby, developers plan to consecrate that decisive American battlefield with a casino.
Less than a mile from where Lincoln's "honored dead" gave "the last full measure of devotion" to the Union, the Mason-Dixon Resort & Casino hopes to offer a 70,000 square foot facility with 50 gaming tables and 600 slot machines. Promising to create 375 jobs and save 100 by converting an existing hotel, developer David Levan told state regulators:

"Mason Dixon can empower the region and re-energize a struggling county."

But as Reuters reported, a casino of the people, by the people with profits for private developers is being viewed as a betrayal and an act of desecration:

But opponents, who have collected more than 30,000 signatures and stacked the petitions in cardboard boxes marked "Save Gettysburg" in front of the five-member gaming board at the hearing, are not convinced.
"This petition is signed by Americans nationwide and shows that this is much more than a local issue," said Cinda Waldbuesser, of the National Parks Conservation Association. "Gettysburg National Military Park is a national treasure that belongs to all Americans."
Critics also showed a video that included statements from filmmaker Ken Burns, actor Sam Waterston and historian David McCullough. They argued that allowing the casino to go ahead would be the equivalent of building a gaming hall at Arlington National Cemetery or on the site of New York's Twin Towers.

Levan, who was turned down by the gaming board in 2006 when he tried to build a larger casino closer to the battlefield, has his supporters. About 250 showed up at a hearing this week to voice their approval. The Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association, a local nonprofit group, previously voted 10 - 1 in favor of the project. Its president Brendan Synnamon said, "We would not support a commercial property that would go on the battlefield," adding, "This does not represent a preservation issue."
If this controversy sounds familiar, it should. In 1994, the Walt Disney Company announced plans for a theme park in Manassas, Virginia near the site of the Civil War battles of Bull Run. After facing a firestorm of public pressure, Disney abandoned what the New York Times deemed "the most irresponsible idea ever hatched in the Magic Kingdom":

Michael Eisner, Disney's chairman, argued that Americans were ignorant about their history and needed Disney-style fun to teach them. As the historian David McCullough has pointed out, this episode has shown that Americans do know their history and care about ground made sacred by what occurred there.

Sadly, not all Americans.
Washington Post columnist and bitter foe of the New York Islamic Center Charles Krauthammer was all for Disney's bull at Bull Run. As he acknowledged in his blistering column titled "Sacrilege at Ground Zero", the psychiatrist turned conservative attack dog who fears the "hallowed ground" in lower Manhattan will be "misappropriated" by Americans exercising their freedom of religion was untroubled by Mickey Mouse at Manassas:

That's why Disney's 1993 proposal to build an American history theme park near Manassas Battlefield was defeated by a broad coalition that feared vulgarization of the Civil War (and that was wiser than me; at the time I obtusely saw little harm in the venture). It's why the commercial viewing tower built right on the border of Gettysburg was taken down by the Park Service.

That the future of lower Manhattan must build on the best of its past is why Krauthammer's feeble analogies fail. Of course, the site where 150,000 Americans fought and 50,000 were killed or wounded in 1863 isn't Ground Zero - or like any place else on earth. And Ground Zero is not the battlefield-turned-national cemetery as Gettysburg, the death camp turned memorial at Auschwitz or the once and future naval base at Pearl Harbor. And Sarah Palin notwithstanding, the site of the Twin Towers is not Srbrenica. Thousands of Americans didn't just die in Lower Manhattan; it's where many thousands more - and the timeless values they share - will live.
As for Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln explained Americans' shared responsibility both to those who died there and to posterity:

"But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract."

Unless, that is, we build a casino there.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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