A place is made sacred by a widespread belief that it was visited by the miraculous or the transcendent (Lourdes, the Temple Mount), by the presence there once of great nobility and sacrifice (Gettysburg), or by the blood of martyrs and the indescribable suffering of the innocent (Auschwitz).But of course, our betters such as the Mayor and the White House which posted his remarks all think that the only reason that people would oppose such a mosque is due to unthinking prejudice against Muslims. Because, in their view, only someone of deep-seated bigotry would be against such a mosque. Well, then the majority of Americans are bigots. People don't oppose this imam's building of a mosque, but just one in that location. If he was truly interested in cross-cultural openness and discussions, he would pick another site. Instead, he is deliberately choosing a site to exacerbate relations.
When we speak of Ground Zero as hallowed ground, what we mean is that it belongs to those who suffered and died there -- and that such ownership obliges us, the living, to preserve the dignity and memory of the place, never allowing it to be forgotten, trivialized or misappropriated.
That's why Disney's 1993 proposal to build an American history theme park near Manassas Battlefield was defeated by a broad coalition that feared vulgarization of the Civil War (and that was wiser than me; at the time I obtusely saw little harm in the venture). It's why the commercial viewing tower built right on the border of Gettysburg was taken down by the Park Service. It's why, while no one objects to Japanese cultural centers, the idea of putting one up at Pearl Harbor would be offensive.
And why Pope John Paul II ordered the Carmelite nuns to leave the convent they had established at Auschwitz. He was in no way devaluing their heartfelt mission to pray for the souls of the dead. He was teaching them a lesson in respect: This is not your place; it belongs to others. However pure your voice, better to let silence reign.
Even New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who denounced opponents of the proposed 15-story mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero as tramplers on religious freedom, asked the mosque organizers "to show some special sensitivity to the situation." Yet, as columnist Rich Lowry pointedly noted, the government has no business telling churches how to conduct their business, shape their message or show "special sensitivity" to anyone about anything. Bloomberg was thereby inadvertently conceding the claim of those he excoriates for opposing the mosque, namely that Ground Zero is indeed unlike any other place and therefore unique criteria govern what can be done there.
America is a free country where you can build whatever you want -- but not anywhere. That's why we have zoning laws. No liquor store near a school, no strip malls where they offend local sensibilities, and, if your house doesn't meet community architectural codes, you cannot build at all.That's not bigotry, but true sensitivity.
These restrictions are for reasons of aesthetics. Others are for more profound reasons of common decency and respect for the sacred. No commercial tower over Gettysburg, no convent at Auschwitz -- and no mosque at Ground Zero.
Build it anywhere but there.