One non-bigoted case against the erroneously-named “Ground Zero mosque” seems to go something like this:
“Religious freedom is legitimate and important, and the promoters of the planned community center have a constitutional right to build the complex in Lower Manhattan. But still, the community center should be built somewhere else, out of sensitivity to earnestly held objections, and out of respect for the families of 9/11 victims.”
Perhaps the most forthright statement of this argument came from the Anti-Defamation League:
“… ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain — unnecessarily — and that is not right”
Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) suggested something along these lines when he said today, through a spokesman, that he “respects [freedom of religion] but thinks that the mosque should be built some place else.” And this seems to be what Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) was getting at when he said, “This is not about freedom of religion. I do think it’s unwise to build a mosque in the site where 3,000 Americans lost their lives as the result of a terrorist attack.” This line of argument seems to be the preferred tack of those who oppose the “Ground Zero mosque,” but who want to keep a safe distance from blatant anti-Muslim bigotry and suggestions from the likes of Newt Gingrich that Muslims are to 9/11 as Nazis are to the Holocaust. That is, this seems to be the go-to argument of those who recognize that there are moderate, peaceful Muslims, and who may even grant that the promoters of this community center are examples of the type.
Of course, it is entirely possible to have a right to do something that you ought not do, morally speaking. As I pointed out last week, one may have a right to use expletives in the course of a public demonstration; but to deliberately direct the protest to the vicinity of a schoolyard would be insensitive, to say the least.
Or consider flag-burning. The Supreme Court has ruled that the right to freedom of expression protects the burning of the American flag. But we shouldn’t shrink from disapproving of protesters who deliberately try to injure others, say, by burning a flag outside of a VFW hall. The Constitution makes moral assumptions and propositions, but constitutional law and political morality are not coextensive.
The moral principle at work in my two examples seems to be that we ought to defer to strongly held feelings, and not provoke or antagonize people unnecessarily. But then there is the countervailing thought that not all feelings are worth deferring to. Fareed Zakaria, responding to Abe Foxman’s notion that “anguish entitles [the 9/11 families] to feelings that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted,” points out that, unless we put some sort of restriction on this logic, we end up with conclusions like “the anguish of Palestinians entitles them to be anti-Semitic.” Unless we add some qualification, this is political correctness with a vengeance: anything that offends a vocal group of people “ought not” be done. This reasoning would cripple our moral universe; people on both sides of a moral question would get offended by the people on the other, and then where are we left?
My point, and it really is a simple one, is that we need to inquire into why people are offended, and whether they have good reason to be. As with all moral questions, this gets dicey. But it’s pretty clear that the veterans would be right to take offense to protesters who sought them out with the intent of offending them. I think the element of deliberateness is key here. In the rough-and-tumble of democratic life, we all have to put up with things we don’t like. But being deliberately offended, that’s a different story. Sarah Palin appealed to this moral intuition when she said that the community center was an “unnecessary provocation.” The implication is that the community center’s planners wanted to hurt people’s feelings.
Notice that the focus has now turned from the “victims” to the “perpetrators.” This change of focus is inevitable unless we are to ratify every sincerely held feeling under the sun. We have to ask whether those feelings are factually accurate and morally justified, or whether they are, as Foxman would have it, “irrational and bigoted.” And figuring out the answer to that question requires us to determine the right attitude to take towards the people or things that have offended, not just those who have been offended.
So, people like Harry Reid, John Cornyn, and Abe Foxman have to take a position on questions that they’d rather avoid. Questions like: Were the planners of this project trying to provoke 9/11 families, as Palin implies? Or were they, as they themselves have contended, trying to build a monument to interfaith cooperation and tolerance? Of course, it’s hard to know what’s in a person’s heart. My best guess is that the planners were well-intentioned, but naive in thinking that this project would be understood in the way in which it was intended.
But maybe you say that deliberateness isn’t all that matters, and you grant that the organizers of the complex mean well. Can you still hold that the project should be abandoned? One proposition, which I’ve heard from several down-the-line liberals, is that the community center should be built elsewhere just for the sake of satisfying the people who have gotten worked up over it. But what kind of morality is that? That might be the easier course to take in this instance, but what principle could possibly justify it? And what are we going to do the next time some group of people claims to be offended by another group’s activities?
Once we’ve granted good intentions and rejected the proposal of surrender, I struggle to see how one can oppose the community center without crossing the line into bigotry. For, assuming good intentions, how can a Muslim community center be worse than a Christian or Jewish one?
Please note that I’m not saying that anybody who opposes the project is a bigot. I’m saying that there are no good non-bigoted reasons to be offended by the proposed community center, and those like Foxman, Reid, and Cornyn who think that they have found one are mistaken.
But maybe I’m missing something (maybe we all are). Can someone explain why this community center is a bad thing without suggesting that all Muslims are complicit in terrorism? Can someone elaborate on what makes it “inappropriate” to have a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero, when there’s one four blocks away, and when Muslims already pray inside the Pentagon? Can someone show me a principle worth defending here, rather than a jumble of emotions being stoked by opportunistic politicians for short-term advantage?
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