President Obama was stupid, stupid, stupid.
He could have stayed mum about the controversy surrounding the construction of an Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero.
Yes, let's make that "two blocks thingy" clear from the outset.
Nothing Islamic is being constructed on the site where the Two Towers fell. For a sturdy analysis of how the national media is perpetuating that myth, see Michael Calderone's outstanding article.
In addition, nobody who has been two blocks in every direction of where the Two Towers once stood could call two blocks away "hallowed ground" unless Dunkin Doughtnuts, discount jewelry stores, and strip clubs are America's new definition of sanctity.
But back to Obama's idiocy.
Why not stay silent or oppose construction of the mosque, which was the much smarter political play? Certainly, other Democrats, such as the beleaguered Harry Reid, have done so.
Instead, Obama waded in and gave Republicans, conservative pundits, and all those who think Obama harbors a secret (or even a not-so-secret) allegiance to Islam, a huge talking point, and one with staggering political resonance. To the degree most Americans are united on anything, it is their suspicions of Muslims.
So at a time when many political observers believe Democrats are already going to get walloped in the midterm elections, what was Obama thinking making any statement on this?!?
Before I answer, let me say two other things.
First, most people have not read the President's entire remarks on the controversy. Do yourself a favor and do so now:
That is not to say that religion is without controversy. Recently, attention has been focused on the construction of mosques in certain communities – particularly in New York. Now, we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan. The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. The pain and suffering experienced by those who lost loved ones is unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.
But let me be clear: as a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are. The writ of our Founders must endure.
We must never forget those who we lost so tragically on 9/11, and we must always honor those who have led our response to that attack – from the firefighters who charged up smoke-filled staircases, to our troops who are serving in Afghanistan today. And let us always remember who we are fighting against, and what we are fighting for. Our enemies respect no freedom of religion. Al Qaeda’s cause is not Islam – it is a gross distortion of Islam. These are not religious leaders – these are terrorists who murder innocent men, women and children. In fact, al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion – and that list of victims includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11.
That is who we are fighting against. And the reason that we will win this fight is not simply the strength of our arms – it is the strength of our values. The democracy that we uphold. The freedoms that we cherish. The laws that we apply without regard to race or religion; wealth or status. Our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect to those who are different from us – a way of life that stands in stark contrast to the nihilism of those who attacked us on that September morning, and who continue to plot against us today.
Second, I understand why many Americans do not feel this opposition is about freedom of religion because, in the strictest sense, it isn't. There's no law saying you can't be a Muslim now or that you can't build a mosque where you want. So for any political official to pitch it solely in those terms is a bit misleading. But Obama had to frame the issue under a noble constitutional freedom because he can't tell the real truth, and it is this:
The Americans who oppose the construction of this mosque do so out of prejudice, as defined below, and any objective person would recognize this.
"Prejudice" is defined as "making a judgment, usually negative, about an individual or group of individuals (say, for example, a group who want to build a cultural center) on the basis of their social, physical, or cultural characteristics." One of those cultural characteristics is clearly religion.
Opponents believe that because some so-called Muslims were responsible for 9/11, no Muslims should build anything identifiably Muslim within two blocks of Ground Zero.
But is that the real demarcation line? What if the community center were three blocks away? How about four? Or five? Precisely how many blocks away from Ground Zero would be acceptable to the Sarah Palin's of the world?
Would I be wrong in suggesting that at least one of the 9/11 victim's families would suggest you shouldn't even have a mosque in New York City? Should we kowtow to that person's wishes, no matter how prejudiced, because they had loved ones die? (For the record, Toby Harnden notes that two blocks is a quarter of a mile away from Ground Zero, and there is already a mosque a third of a mile away. Do we need to relocate that one? Oh, also, as Justin Elliott with Salon has reported, there's also a mosque in the Pentagon, where Muslims have been praying since 2001. Do we need to move that, too?)
Also, what of the sixty Muslims who died on 9/11? Of course you didn't know until now. Nobody wants to talk about them because they make the conversation too inconvenient.
But back to the prejudice.
If a KKK-Christian (and, yes, the Klan does claim Christianity as its abiding faith) had destroyed the Two Towers, would anybody protesting the cultural center now say that a Christian Church couldn't be built two blocks away from Ground Zero? Of course not. Nor would anybody question whether those who wanted to build the church were doing so as some kind of victory dance. What people would recognize is that some racist "Christian" psychos can't discredit every other practitioner of Christianity. In fact, most of us would recognize that the Klan members had engaged in a perversion of Christianity, which is precisely what those who want to construct the center say about the 9/11 terrorists' view of Islam.
If an African-American snipered a bunch of people in Times Square, would anybody say the NAACP couldn't build a center within two blocks because some of the victims's families were upset? Of course not. Most likely because, even if the victims' families felt personal racial animus toward the sniper, they wouldn't even think to project it against an entire race.
But many Americans cannot (or will not even try to) differentiate a handful of Muslim terrorists from the hundreds of millions who peacefully practice Islam, and therein lies the completely transparent conflict. While claiming there is no prejudice at play, many Americans also will tell you without any qualifiers, limitations, or irony that "Muslims" are intent on destroying us all.
One analogy Rush Limbaugh has used is to compare the outcry over the construction of the Islamic center to the expected outcry over building of a Shinto (predominant Japanese faith) Temple next to Pearl Harbor. And to Rush I would say that prejudice would cause that outcry as well because it would be saying that just because someone is of that faith, they were somehow responsible for what others of that faith did.
Or, let me put it a way Rush's fans might understand: "Religions don't kill people; people who pervert religions kill people."
Now, having said all of this, had I been hired as a PR consultant for the financiers of this center, I most certainly would have told them when the outcry began to accept offers for an alternative location.
But I also would have recognized that by doing so, they would legitimize for the rest of America the perception that their faith - and not a bunch of psychos - was what caused 9/11.
So why was Obama so stupid, stupid, stupid? Because he was right, right, right, and if he turns out to be a one-termer, at least he'll know he didn't cave to the darkest instincts of some Americans.
As Michael Douglas says in The American President:
America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.
I'm proud to have a President who will take a massive political hit because he sees a chasm between our deeds and our most cherished ideals.
If you're not, maybe you're not ready for advanced citizenship.