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Jeffrey Feldman Headshot

"Ground Zero Mosque" Is the New "Death Panels"

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By now, the right-wing political chop-shop has convinced an embarrassingly large chunk of the country that a "YMCA"-type project planned for lower Manhattan is the equivalent of Osama bin Laden landing on the shores of the Potomac.

Mayor Bloomberg, to his credit, scoffed at this right-wing idiocy in an eloquent speech about religious freedom. President Obama followed suit.

But while Mayor and President had their hearts in the right place, the very idea that the Cordoba House hysteria is about "religion" is not really accurate. The fact that the public debate has been framed around a "Ground Zero mosque" flows not from the facts of the project, but from a cynical right-wing effort to turn a benign and welcome addition to lower Manhattan into something that could be viewed as threatening and sinister (a.k.a., a wedge issue).

"Ground Zero Mosque" is the new "death panels." Or is it the new "gay marriage"? Take your pick -- there's plenty of right-wing wedge issues to go around and they all have one thing in common: their goal is to whip up enough fear to keep people from working together to solve the real problems we all face together.

The large issue at stake here, in other words is not freedom of religion, but mass hysteria. Rather than just wrap Cordoba House in the First Amendment, President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg might have done better if they had dusted off their dog-eared copies of Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

Familiar Themes
Cordoba House is not some sudden and new issue, but the latest attempt by the Republican Party to displace meaningful political debate with pitch-fork-and-torches style mass hysteria.

The themes of these newest wave of delirium are familiar: Muslim conspiracy; infiltration by foreign terrorists; Liberal collusion.

Are we a nation ruled by mass hysteria -- a nation that sees conspiracy behind every unfamiliar face? Or are we a nation that raises above the tyranny of the mob roused to rid the village of those in league with the Devil? Those are the questions that the Mayor and President should have asked, but nobody seems to be asking them.

When mass hysteria has been allowed in the past to drive public policy it lead inexorably to shameful results that destroyed lives and weakened democratic society.

One example from our recent past is so shameful that most Americans have never even heard of it: Manzanar.

We've Been Here Before
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, the country was gripped by fear that Americans of Japanese descent constituted a fifth column. The result was one of the biggest mistakes in American history.

In 1942, following a series decisions goaded by hysteria that Japanese Americans would turn on their neighbors, the US government insisted that all people of Japanese descent be removed far away from the rest of the population. The result: the imprisonment of 110,000 innocent men, women and children in a series of military-style concentration camps, the most famous of which was Manzanar.

What drove the hysteria that led from Pearl Harbor to Manzanar was a false theory that Japanese-Americans would be driven to destroy America by virtue of some racial, national, and religious affinity with their erstwhile homeland. Even if Japanese-Americans had lived, worked, and contributed to American society for decades, if you looked Japanese in 1942, you were perceived by a huge swath of the country as part of a conspiracy that needed to be kept at a safe distance from the rest of the population.

We know, today, of course that such a racial predispositions to political views do not exist. Japanese-Americans were not a fifth column.

And yet, what we see in the hysteria generated by the right-wing in response to the Cordoba House project is a re-enactment of America in 1942.

Buried deep within this fear of Cordoba House is the exact same idea that set Japanese Americans on the path to Manzanar: that if you share a culture trait with the enemy who attacked us, then you are, by default, an enemy of United States.

If there is anything we should not tolerate in 2010 America, it is the growth of an idea that was as wrong seventy years ago as it is, today.

What we have learned since Manzanar should be in the forefront of our debate, today: the immense combination of intangible qualities that makes a person a valuable part of our democracy before a hostile attack on our shores, continues to make them a value part of our democracy after that attack.

Vigilance, Not Hysteria
If the City of New York allows a Muslim-themed cultural center to serve the community of lower Manhattan, then the city will be better better off for it. And yet, if even the slimmest majority allows the right-wing media generated hysteria to convince our government that Muslim Americans are a de facto threat to America -- then we are all weaker for it.

But what is the solution?

Learning a thing or two about Islam certainly could not hurt matters. A public that does not believe all Muslims are the same, is far less likely to fall for hysteria based on the theory that all Muslims are the same. As it happens, the people who proposed Cordoba House are offering a place for exactly that kind of learning for those who chose it.

And yet, learning a thing or two about Islam is not by itself enough to snap ourselves out of our addiction to media generated mass hysteria.

"Let you strike out against the Devil, and the village will bless you for it!" says Mrs. Putnam in Act One of The Crucible. Stand up and accuse someone, in other words, and social acceptance will be yours.

If there is one, key lesson from Miller's The Crucible germane to our current situation, it is that each of us must cultivate our own immunity to mass hysteria. We must learn to be aware of false accusations, to question theories that seem irrational, and to distance ourselves from those who wield hysteria in exchange for power over us. And the best place to start is to look at our own history where we have made these mistakes in the past.

Can we we get past this hysteria simply because we chose to rise above it?

With effort and perseverance, we can. There's your first marvel, that we can.

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