The Gothamist has a story about the land use conflict arising over the placement of a mosque two blocks from the World Trade Center site:
Opponents to the plan to build a mosque and community center two blocks from the World Trade Center site insist they’re not bigoted, intolerant Islamophobes, but just defenders of what’s appropriate. For example, one woman whose relative died on 9/11 recently told the local Community Board, “I am not a bigot and most of the people in this room are not bigots, I oppose the mosque because it’s in poor taste.” And the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Peter King, says, “Right at this moment in history, it’s bad form to put it there. There are things you are allowed to do, but that aren’t appropriate to do.” Ah, the Miss Manners approach. Can’t lose!
One phrase I wish I could strike from the English language is “I’m not a bigot/racist/sexist/whatever, but…” For one thing, it’s not like somebody who is an Archie Bunker style bigot would go walking around saying, “Well, I am, in fact, a bigot, and this is what I think.” No. You don’t have to be Archie Bunker to perform racist ideas or actions. This is one of the most hurtful and divisive things about our modern discussion about race. Everybody is sensitive–everybody–and everybody knows it’s not nice to be racist. As a result, racism is viewed as an attitude ignorant people choose to have rather than structuring aspect of culture, one that informs ideas and feelings, so that you may not choose to think that way.
In the case of the World Trade Center, this land use conflict illustrates multiple tensions, some of which do have to deal with bigotry. Let’s take a look at this statement:
King, who is a supporter of Republican Rick Lazio’s campaign for governor, told the AP yesterday, “We are at war with al-Qaida. I think the 9/11 families have a right to know where the funding comes from; I think there are significant questions.
We are, in fact, at war with al-Qaida, but al-Qaida isn’t asking for a variance or historic landmark status. A group of Americans are.
Racism, sexism, and isms in general involve selective focus. In the case of women in male dominated structures, it’s the selective focus on particular aspects of male strength and the systematic de-emphasis or refusal to acknowledge different aspects of women’s bodies as strong that helps encode the belief that men are somehow objectively stronger/more fit/etc than women. (I know that I will get arguments on this. Yes, you can beat me at arm wrestling and run faster. Can you produce food from your body? Which sex lives longer even after producing new life after new life? Selective attention can valorize or demonize whatever we want it to and distort any set of issues we want it to.)
For the mosque, it’s the selective attention to al Qaida’s association with Islamic fundamentalism as defining terrorism that reflects the selective vision. Would it be wrong to place a Republican Party office next to the Alfred P. Murrah Building? Or a National Rifle Association office? No Catholic churches? McVeigh was born a Catholic; he was active as a young Republican, and he held a membership in the NRA. Why are the religious and political affiliations of the 9/11 bombers allowed to define an entire group of people, but Tim McVeigh’s actions are an individual’s actions, entirely immune from group-level stereotyping of the white America in which he grew up? He’s a nut, we can all say, one nut. Not every NRA member is like this. Why use him (or pedophile priests) to exemplify Catholicism rather than Dorothy Day or Father Greg Boyle? Selectively focussing the traits of others as essentially one thing–while asserting the uniqueness and validity of our own individualism–is a luxury held among those within a dominant culture.
For another example: is the Southern Baptist Church responsible for the Klan, who are domestic terrorists, plain and simple?
Americans’ tendency to ignore history means that we are unable to draw lessons from times when we have had cause to grieve terrible losses and reflect on how our grief caused us react on prior occasions. And thus we make all the same mistakes. Pearl Harbor, 1941, a sneak attack on American soil, with 2,403 dead. After that, in grief and fear and war, Americans on the west coast of the US who are Japanese ethnicity were rounded up, put in camps without due process, their freedom and property seized. Americans now look upon that action–if they look at it all–with shame. Or we should. Because it was an act of bigotry that punished innocent individuals for sharing ethnic ties with a hostile nation-state. And yet, they were Americans, most for generations. If you plot the location of Japanese Community Center in Los Angeles during those troubled years, you can see a parallel between stigmatizing that land use and stigmatizing a mosque near the World Trade Center–as though no American Muslims died there, along with other Americans, like ethnically Japanese men in the US navy at Pearl Harbor.
Has there ever been an instance when, decades later, we haven’t deeply regretted broad-scale ethnic profiling?
How much deference should the families of 9/11 be shown in public discussions about the WTC location? Their feelings do matter, obviously, but the obligations of the public sphere also place limits on the entitlements of grief. Hammering that out has been a long, sad, and necessary process.