Travelling in the second half of last week, I had occasion to realize how pervasive the TV news coverage of the “ground zero mosque” has become — perhaps in part because it is doubtless a dream situation for TV news producers: All you have to do is draw 3-4 people into the studio and have them debate the question for twenty minutes, throw in a couple of commercial breaks, and voila! you have another 1/48th of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. I was reminded again of how glad I am to have cancelled the cable TV subscription and never put up an antenna.
As I think about it, this seems to me a made-for-TV controversy in more ways than one. For all the talk about this being the “ground zero mosque”, the location two blocks away will not be visible from the WTC monument itself, and is currently occupied by sacred precincts such as the offices of the University of Pheonix, Marty’s Shoes and the Dakota Roadhouse. This is New York, for goodness sake. A thirteen story building isn’t exactly going to stick out. And the visible symbols of religion closes to Ground Zero will remain St. Peter’s Catholic Church, St. Paul’s Episcopal, and John Street United Methodist. (If anything, it’s a little disappointing the plans for the mosque look rather like a vertical shoebox with abstract patters on it — no minarets here.)
Aside from the necessity of selling news, this project would be a mildly notable local event, leading to a mildly distinctive-looking building that people would rush by every day without thinking about it very much in that teeming mass of diverse humanity which is New York. The most “bridge building” likely to go on would be people stopping in at the halal food court for lunch.
But the media must earn a crust and find a way to fill the time, and so it’s time that we have one of these tiresome “national conversations” — this time about religious freedom and forgiveness and building bridges and the nature of Islam. Perhaps I’ve turned grumpy or obtuse, but I think it’s rather a tremendous waste of time. The idea that much of anything would be out of place in New York seems rather hard to credit. And once all the fuss has died down, and it’s become clear that there’s really not much of anything that can be done about how the owners want to develop this particular piece of real estate, then the thing will be built and people will walk by it every day, and it will be just as forgotten as all the other national conversations we’ve felt the unaccountable need to have over the last few years.
And if I may stray further into heresy against conservative orthodoxies: I think we need to get over our 9-11 exceptionalism a little bit here too. Given our place and preeminence in the world, the question pre 2001 was not so much whether the US would suffer a major terrorist attack, but when. Chances were good we’d eventually be attacked for foreign terrorists. Chances were good those terrorist would be of an Islamic background. And compared to the Tom Clancy type visions people had been reading for years, the real thing was actually a lot less destructive than it could have been. Goodness knows I’m all for sober recollection of the dead, but this is teeming, bustling New York. Build a monument where the WTC stood, and then just get on with live elsewhere. This isn’t some half-abandoned Mainstreet USA where we need to sit around agonizing with the city fathers about every building that’s renovated or put up.
Perhaps I read too much Heinlein at a formative age, but I’d tend to picture the US as the sort of dominant power which says to the world: “You’re welcome to come here and enjoy our liberties so long as you behave yourselves and follow our laws. If not, we’ll level your cities and depose your leaders. Once we’re done, we’ll rebuild your cities better than before, give you a better government, and leave you the hell alone unless you make the mistake of attacking us again in which case God help you.”
Let them build.
Since I’ve been using the Google street view feature a lot lately to look at real estate, it occured to me to give Ground Zero the same treatment as regards the mosque. Here’s the view across Ground Zero towards where the Islamic Center would be — out of sight behind that other building.
And here’s the street view of Park Place, where the center would stand on your right.