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A plea for sensitivity critical thinking

I'm late to mention this piece by William Saletan, published in Slate August 23 ("Is a mosque near Ground Zero 'insensitive'?"), which gets to the bottom of this manufactured emotional wedge issue like nothing else I've read. After briskly demolishing the initial rumors about the Park51 development, Saletan quotes the fallback position of opponents who have questioned the sensitivity of the project: Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani, Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol... all people renowned for their respect of others' sensitivities.

Feelings about 9/11 are raw and real. Many people, including families who lost loved ones that day, find the prospect of a mosque near Ground Zero upsetting. I've heard this reaction in my family, too. But feelings aren't reasons. You can't tell somebody not to build a house of worship somewhere just because the idea upsets you. You have to figure out why you're upset. What's the basis of your discomfort? Why should others respect it? For that matter, why should you?

This kind of reflection is missing from the sensitivity chorus....

Saletan admits that, with "the exception of Palin, these are not stupid people. They're searching our sensitivity for an underlying rationale that justifies the exclusion of mosques from the vicinity of Ground Zero. And they aren't finding one.":

We aren't talking about killing Muslims or banning their religion. We're just asking them not to build a mosque near the place where they murdered thousands of our people. [...]

But if our revulsion at the idea of a mosque near Ground Zero is irrational--if it's based on group blame and a failure to distinguish Islam from terrorism--then maybe it isn't the mosque's planners who need to rise above their emotions. Maybe it's the rest of us.

Once we recognize the sensitivity argument for what it is--an appeal to feelings we can't morally justify--there's no good reason why the Islamic center shouldn't be built at its planned site, in the neighborhood where its imam already preaches and its members work and congregate. Asking them to reorder their lives to accommodate our instinctive reaction is wrong. We can transcend that reaction, and we should.

By all means, let's have a thoughtful conversation about Islam and its place in the United States. Let's ask the imam what he means when he says sharia is compatible with the U.S. Constitution. Let's confront the reluctance of Muslim clerics, including this one, to denounce Hamas. And let's demand transparency in the fundraising process so extremists don't finance the new building. Moving the building farther away from Ground Zero won't advance any of these discussions. It's the wrong fight. Let it go.

See also: "The parable of the tie, continued...

Map above from FactCheck.org. (Note St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church, standing guard between Ground Zero and Park51.)

ADDENDUM (9/6/2010): Nicholas Kristof has an excellent column, "America's History of Fear" that places anti-Islamic fear in historical perspective. An excerpt:

Screeds against Catholics from the 19th century sounded just like the invective today against the Not-at-Ground-Zero Mosque. The starting point isn't hatred but fear: an alarm among patriots that newcomers don't share their values, don't believe in democracy, and may harm innocent Americans.

Followers of these movements against Irish, Germans, Italians, Chinese and other immigrants were mostly decent, well-meaning people trying to protect their country. But they were manipulated by demagogues playing upon their fears -- the 19th- and 20th-century equivalents of Glenn Beck.

Most Americans stayed on the sidelines during these spasms of bigotry, and only a small number of hoodlums killed or tormented Catholics, Mormons or others. But the assaults were possible because so many middle-of-the-road Americans were ambivalent.

Suspicion of outsiders, of people who behave or worship differently, may be an ingrained element of the human condition, a survival instinct from our cave-man days. But we should also recognize that historically this distrust has led us to burn witches, intern Japanese-Americans, and turn away Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.

Perhaps the closest parallel to today's hysteria about Islam is the 19th-century fear spread by the Know Nothing movement about "the Catholic menace." One book warned that Catholicism was "the primary source" of all of America's misfortunes, and there were whispering campaigns that presidents including Martin Van Buren and William McKinley were secretly working with the pope. Does that sound familiar?

Critics warned that the pope was plotting to snatch the Mississippi Valley and secretly conspiring to overthrow American democracy. "Rome looks with wistful eye to domination of this broad land, a magnificent seat for a sovereign pontiff," one writer cautioned.

Historically, unreal suspicions were sometimes rooted in genuine and significant differences. Many new Catholic immigrants lacked experience in democracy. Mormons were engaged in polygamy. And today some extremist Muslims do plot to blow up planes, and Islam has real problems to work out about the rights of women. The pattern has been for demagogues to take real abuses and exaggerate them, portraying, for example, the most venal wing of the Catholic Church as representative of all Catholicism -- just as fundamentalist Wahabis today are caricatured as more representative of Islam than the incomparably more numerous moderate Muslims of Indonesia (who have elected a woman as president before Americans have).

In the 19th century, fears were stoked by books written by people who supposedly had "escaped" Catholicism. These books luridly recounted orgies between priests and nuns, girls kidnapped and held in secret dungeons, and networks of tunnels at convents to allow priests to rape nuns. One woman claiming to have been a priest's sex slave wrote a "memoir" asserting that Catholics killed boys and ground them into sausage for sale.

These kinds of stories inflamed a mob of patriots in 1834 to attack an Ursuline convent outside Boston and burn it down....

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