Freedom and fear: Ground Zero and Park51

I have been able to get little done for the past week, because I've been distracted by the national conversation taking place over plans for Park51, an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan near the site of the World Trade Center towers that fell in the terrorist attack on 9/11/2001. At least I wish it were a conversation -- one about sacred space, memory, liberty, and community. Unfortunately, although there have been some excellent and thoughtful responses from proponents, detractors, and people on the sidelines, these have largely been drowned out by posturing and politicizing.

But the voices that won't leave me alone are not those who are blogging about this issue or showing up in TV interviews. I'm thinking more of the friends of friends on Facebook with whom I've discussed each other's link posts. And I'm thinking of the woman from Ohio whom I met a couple of weeks ago when she came to town for a mutual friend's memorial service. Her husband is a 9th-generation farmer and stays close to home, but she has traveled quite a bit herself. I don't recall the details of the story she told as we sat on my porch after dark, getting acquainted over a glass of wine, but at one point she said, "I don't know much about the Catholic religion, but ...." She then told of a Catholic friend who had approached the death of a loved one in a way that seemed to reflect Catholic practice but also was understandable to one who was unfamiliar with that faith.

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How many of us could substitute, "I don't know much about the Muslim religion, but ..." and finish the sentence with a story about the values of Islam that were borne out in a particular person's worthy actions? I don't think I could, even though I have worked with and prayed with Muslims in my community.

My Ohio friend's phrase keeps tugging at me, because it connects her heartland experience -- that of recognizing humanity buoyed by faith, even when the details of that religious practice are outside one's own experience -- with a key goal of the Park51 project: the opportunity to bear witness to faith in a way that will be concrete, memorable, and understandable even to those who know little about Islam. As expressed by building owner and developer Sharif El-Gamal, "We work in lower Manhattan, we care about lower Manhattan, and we’re here to provide services to lower Manhattan." Park51 will include sports facilities, an auditorium, community meeting rooms and classrooms, a restaurant and cooking school, a 9/11 memorial with space for quiet reflection, and a mosque, all of which dovetail nicely with the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation's goal of "ensuring the emergence of Lower Manhattan as a strong and vibrant community."

Of course the catch is that Park51's neighborhood is just to the north of where the World Trade Center towers fell and 2,976 innocent people died, the area known today as "Ground Zero."  For many people, the deaths at Ground Zero give it a status of "hallowed ground," comparable to the Gettysburg and Antietam battlefields where thousands died during the Civil War.

Sacred space and hallowed ground

If you're reading this on my web site, then it should be obvious that sacred space is a topic near and dear to my heart. My reading list and my travel choices keep it close at hand. I have visited churches and cathedrals, Buddhist meditation halls, mosques, and a beautiful Hindu temple in suburban Atlanta. I have dipped my hand in a holy well on Iona. I have walked the hallowed ground at Gettysburg and Borodino. My husband and I frequently pause at "To Our Glorious Fallen" monuments on courthouse lawns and in parks, so that we can honor not just the fallen heroes but also the community spirit that sustains their commemoration.

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Pentagon MemorialI also have made several pilgrimages to the only permanent memorial yet completed at a 9/11 site, the one at the Pentagon, and recommend it to both locals and visitors, although few seem willing to make the effort. Perhaps it is too painful. The Pentagon Memorial is a very special outdoor place, open 24/7, telling the human story of innocent lives forever intertwined, making that story accessible in a way that requires few words and stimulates much reflection, especially at night when it's easier to hear the gurgling of the pools of water under the 184 benches, one for each victim.

What hallows Ground Zero, Gettysburg, and the Pentagon Memorial is not just the number of deaths that occurred there, but the meaning that we attach to those deaths. For what exactly did they die? Take Gettysburg, for example. When we honor those who fell there, we recognize its role as a turning point in our national story:

It is not just a place of ultimate past sacrifice but a place where we now make pilgrimages to honor those past actions; it is a site of "altars and shrines".... In this place, "the Union" was saved. The idea of the United States of America was preserved -- and, more than preserved, a new vision for what America could be in the future was embodied in the successful sacrifice of these cultural heroes and offered  to the rest of the nation (including us) in the brilliant rhetoric of Lincoln's address. (Scott Leonard and Michael McClure, Myth and knowing: An introduction to the world mythology, pp. 325-6)

So what do we commemorate at Ground Zero that does justice to the sacrifice made by those who sat at their desks or rushed as rescuers into the burning buildings? The answer was offered first when President George W. Bush spoke on September 20, 2001, at a joint session of Congress:

I ask you to uphold the values of America, and remember why so many have come here. We are 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....

Freedom and fear are at war.  The advance of human freedom -- the great achievement of our time, and the great hope of every time -- now depends on us....

The controversy over the Park51 project provides a reminder that, nine years later, freedom and fear are still at war in America. Muslims already worship daily within two blocks of Ground Zero. Christian churches stand within the same radius. Fear wins if we draw an arbitrary line and declare that no organized Muslim worship is permitted within this perimeter but Christian congregations are welcome to stay. If that happens, then the terrorists have achieved their objective -- to sow hate and chaos by convincing the world that America is at war with Islam.

What can we learn from the Carmelites?

Some have drawn parallels between Park51's proximity to Ground Zero and that of the Carmelite convent established at Auschwitz in the 1980s, with support from the government in then-Communist Poland. The nuns felt they were entitled to remain in a building associated with the former concentration camp, but Pope John Paul II told them to move.  Park51 has met all the local zoning hurdles, but many feel  that it, too,  should relocate -- to somewhere more distant from Ground Zero.

The Carmelite situation and that of Park51 are not identical. First, the President is not the Pope. The federal government has no legal authority to overrule a local zoning decision. And in the area of moral authority, to tell the Park51 group to build elsewhere would be to violate the President's oath to uphold the Constitution and its First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of religion.

Furthermore, Auschwitz is a potent symbol of the horrific attempt by a government to eradicate an entire religion and culture, along with millions of others who did not meet or accept Germany's standards of "purity." The lives of those killed there have consecrated it as a painful, enduring reminder of what can happen when citizens conspire by their silence to allow groups to be marginalized. The 9/11 attacks, on the other hand, were carried out by a small group of radicals who sought to provoke just the kind of institutionalized hatred that led to Auschwitz. We didn't take the bait, and that has made Ground Zero a symbol of American determination not to give in to prejudice and fear. 

We didn't take the bait in 2001, and we shouldn't take it now.

I recently visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, for the first time, having it put off for years because I didn't want to face what I expected to be a grim depiction of the facts about the Holocaust. I shouldn't have been surprised, I suppose, that it wasn't like that at all. Yes, the story is grim, but simply telling the story of the deaths of 6 million Jews and 5 million others is not the goal of the museum. The goal is far simpler and yet far more difficult: To have every visitor leave with a personal sense of "Never again" -- the ability to recognize the first fruits of hatred and the resolve to stand in their way. This article is part of my response to that imperative.

So, what can we learn from the Carmelites? That it is possible, even likely, for people of good will to hold radically different views and experience radically different emotions regarding the same situation -- and yet still remain people of good will. Those who are in favor of building Park51 and those who are against it have equal rights to express their opinion. When we remember the freedoms bought with the lives of those who died on 9/11 and in Iraq and Afghanistan, we need to include not just freedom of religion, but also freedom of speech.

Another way

However, it is a sad truth that honoring the freedoms that the 9/11 terrorists were aiming to destroy cannot ease the pain of the families still grieving for those killed. Therefore, it is not surprising that opinion on the building of Park51 is mixed among those families, as it is even among Muslims and indeed across the country. Some family members favor building it, precisely so that it can be a sign of reconciliation and peace near Ground Zero. Others say the pain is too great, the wound too raw, with the implication that they want to keep their distance from anything having to do with Islam. That, of course, is their right. No one is going to force the parent or child of a 9/11 victim to visit Park51, nor will it even be visible from Ground Zero (and vice versa).

If attitudes about this project will forever be in conflict, then who should win?

I maintain that's the wrong question. To view this project with an eye toward winners and losers misses the opportunity for growth and reconciliation. Many philosophical, psychological, and spiritual traditions maintain that the ability to hold onto an uncomfortable contradiction is necessary for advancement.  However, most of us prefer to see our problems in black and white, with a clear choice. In fact, what we really seek is not to have to choose at all.  We want the choice to be made for us -- by law or custom -- so that we can avoid the risk and potential remorse of making the wrong choice.

Yet it is ambiguity, that "tension of the opposites" as the 20th century psychologist  Carl Jung put it, that has the power to bring about real change, real social and cultural innovation, real progress, as we transcend the conflict to find new common ground.  In his response to President Obama's iftar dinner statement, Rabbi Irwin Kula acknowledged the interconnected truths that are in play with the Park51 project:

First, that we ought never to forget those who lost their lives on 9/11. Second, that we must always honor those who courageously sacrificed their lives trying to save their fellow citizens. Third, that we need to be ever-sensitive and empathetic to those who suffered traumatic loss of loved ones, a brokenness that can never be fully healed. But we also need to hold these truths together with one more truth: a profound understanding of what ultimately makes Ground Zero hallowed ground, and of what gives the lives of those who perished some redemptive meaning, however inadequate such meaning may be to those who every day mourn their loved ones.

Americans from across this country as well as visitors from all over the world come to Ground Zero not simply because people were murdered there. Rather, they come to stand in silence as sacred witnesses to the enduring truth that the terrorists hoped to undermine: that the unprecedented range of freedoms enshrined in our Constitution, to which we are collectively committed and always reaching to realize more deeply, and among which the freedom of religion is perhaps the most important, is what makes America a unique experiment in human history. It is precisely these freedoms that were attacked on 9/11, and Ground Zero is sacred soil because it is for these freedoms that 3,000 people of diverse religious, and ethnic identities, including Muslims, died, and for which American men and women are fighting. 

When visitors arrive at Ground Zero 150 years from now, what will they see? My hope is that they will see evidence that 9/11, like Gettysburg, was a turning point in American history from which the nation grew stronger in its commitment to freedom. They will see the kind of global commerce and cultural diversity that has always made New York a beacon for those yearning to breathe free. And as they explore the vibrant neighborhoods of lower Manhattan, they will know that in the war between freedom and fear, freedom won.