There been quite a debate going on over the proposed construction of an Islamic Center two blocks from Ground Zero. Since this is America, relatively few people are willing to come right out and say that Congress should legally stop the building from happening. Instead, they say that the project's planners should be discouraged from placing a center there. It's a matter of sensitivity, most critics explain. A Muslim religious presence so close to the attacks would be hurtful to the families of the victims.
The families of the victims. Here's a question: does their pain put their feelings beyond question?
I think about Balbir Singh Sodhi. It really hurt Frank Roque's feelings that even after 9/11, this bearded, turbaned man could be allowed to run a gas station in the middle of the neighborhood. The presence of Balbir at the Chevron station and a Lebanese-American clerk at the Mobil one, of a family of Afghan immigrants in the very apartment Frank used to live in, that must have torn him up inside. And hadn't we all been attacked? Wasn't Frank, too, a sort of victim? Absolutely, Balbir had a right to work in his Arizona gas station--but out of sensitivity for Americans like Frank, a Sikh like Balbir (who looked awfully Muslim) probably should have kept a low profile, or else gone back to Mexico, or Iraq, or wherever it was he came from, right?
After Frank killed Balbir, people from their Mesa neighborhood, people whose children Balbir used to give free pieces of candy to while their parents paid for gas, questioned the assumption that the presence of bearded men with turbans should offend us. They mourned with Balbir's family--a family who should also be counted among the victims of 9/11, their husband/brother/father/uncle murdered by an American terrorist who called himself a patriot. People in that part of Mesa learned the hard way that pain and prejudice are a dangerous combination, and need to be fought with constant vigilance.
A sign put up outside Sodhi's gas station
This isn't the first time America has heard these stories, though. Newt Gingrich argued against the planned center by saying, among other things, that "we would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor." It's interesting that he uses "Japanese" rather than "Japanese-Americans," which would be the more apt comparison, since the Muslims planning this center are based in New York and consider America their home. What Mr. Gingrich has perhaps forgotten is that we're more than a little embarrassed today that during World War Two, Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps by people who couldn't distinguish between neighbors and enemies, who felt the pain of attack justified bending standard protections on civil rights, openness, and trust.
Let's stand together as Americans now. Let's stand with Orrin Hatch, who followed up the question of whether the project is insensitive to those who lost loved ones by saying "We know that there were Muslims killed on 9/11, too." Let's tell the Sarah Palins, Newt Gingriches, and others who turned this building project into a national issue that we appreciate their concern, but we want to be led by people who can move beyond raw emotion into long-term wisdom.
And above all, let's not allow an atmosphere to develop in which pain and prejudice lead to anti-Muslim violence, and create still more victims in the long shadow of 9/11.
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