Who Owns Ground Zero?
On Sunday, Republican Senator John Cornyn promised to make opposition to the so-called Ground Zero mosque a campaign issue, proclaiming, "This is not about freedom of religion." No, it's about much more than that. It is, as President Obama explained Friday, "essential to who we are." Because Ground Zero does not just belong to the families who lost loved ones at the World Trade Center or even to the people of New York City. The 9/11 tragedy and its legacy there - that hallowed ground - belongs to all Americans.
The entire discussion of the Cordoba community center hinges on this vital point. And sadly, its critics have it wrong.
The group 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America claimed that President Obama "has abandoned America at the place where America's heart was broken nine years ago, and where her true values were on display for all to see" and warned that the construction of a mosque nearby "is a deliberately provocative act that will precipitate more bloodshed in the name of Allah." Writing in the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer lamented the "Sacrilege at Ground Zero":
"When we speak of Ground Zero as hallowed ground, what we mean is that it belongs to those who suffered and died there -- and that such ownership obliges us, the living, to preserve the dignity and memory of the place, never allowing it to be forgotten, trivialized or misappropriated."
But the horror of September 11 was an attack on the United States and all Americans. Which is precisely why the memory and significance of Ground Zero no more belongs solely to its victims than to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey or the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.
And the American response to that new day of infamy shouldn't just be to embrace "her true values," but to demonstrate a firm resolve that the American way of life will not be ended, altered, or perverted by the threat of Al Qaeda terrorism.
In his September 20, 2001 address to Congress, President Bush made that perfectly clear:
"These terrorists kill not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end a way of life. With every atrocity, they hope that America grows fearful, retreating from the world and forsaking our friends...
I ask you to uphold the values of America and remember why so many have come here.
We're in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them. No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith."
But President Bush also stressed that while "Terrorists attacked a symbol of American prosperity; they did not touch its source." Which is why the American people were virtually united in the belief that the Ground Zero site at One World Trade Center should once again be home to a shimmering office building. And just as important as the planned memorial center, that skyscraper will , in Krauthammer's words, "preserve the dignity and memory of the place, never allowing it to be forgotten, trivialized or misappropriated."
The response to the destruction of the Twin Towers has rightly been what was shall always be. Lower Manhattan will once again be not just a commercial center, but the enshrinement of American diversity and religious pluralism. And that freedom, enshrined in the Constitution and American history, is why, as Jeffrey Goldberg suggests, "If he could, Bin Laden would bomb the Cordoba Initiative."
That the future of lower Manhattan must build on the best of its past is why Krauthammer's feeble analogies fail. 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.
Regrettably, President Obama as is his wont seemed to equivocate in his plea that "our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable" as even the searing pain of 9/11 forever lingers. To his critics like Rep. Peter King seeking to exploit the growing anti-Islam fervor sweeping the American right, Muslims "are abusing that right by needlessly offending so many people who have suffered so much." While King claims "the president caved into political correctness," Newt Gingrich insisted on Saturday:
"There is nothing surprising in the president's continued pandering to radical Islam. What he said last night is untrue and in accurate. The fact is this is not about religious liberty."
It's about so much more. At the heart of it is the meaning of Ground Zero in the hearts and minds - and Constitution - of its owners: the American people. And that meaning cannot be the fear and vengence of the day, but mutual respect and freedom for all.
UPDATE: On CNN's State of the Union, Rep. Jerry Nadler explains, "We do not put the Bill of Rights...to a vote. The reason we have a Bill of Rights is that you have your religious rights...whether majorities like you or not, frankly."