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Raymond J. Learsy Headshot

A Mosque Perhaps, but a Swimming Pool?

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Much will have been written about the Mosque at Ground Zero both for and against. And yet little touches upon the planned usage of the Islamic Center. Along with a prayer hall the facility will include a swimming pool, a 500-seat performing arts theater and a basketball court. In other words something far removed from a religious chapel where individuals can come and pray and render reverential homage to the events that unfolded on and about that site.

Two blocks from Ground Zero. I happened to have been on the street eight blocks from the first tower that was hit that fateful morning. I clearly remember everyone running to the middle of the street to see what was happening. There was this enormous gash on the facade of the north tower, with smoke pouring out and people on the street hysterically screaming that a plane had crashed into the side of the tower. And then to accentuate the horror, people on the upper and neighboring floors gesturing out of windows 70 or 80 stories up, waving their jackets or whatever they could in desperate urgency to attract attention and help. And those of us on the ground watching the fire broaden already knew it was hopeless.

Around my wife and me were men and women huddled together, dazed, some crying at the horror of it all. No one quite knew what was happening. And then the second plane flew in and crashed into the façade of the south tower and the convulsing fear that we were under attack came over all of us.

Transfixed we watched the fires grow, the sirens around us blaring. We were witnessing the horror of those in the towers trying to make some kind of contact, trapped in the engulfing flames, and for some that we could see, an act of unthinkable and final desperation. And then not long after in a cloud of dense smoke and amid the screams of people on the street the south tower began to collapse. All in any proximity to the slow motion crumbling ot the tower started running as fast and as far as they could in total panic and disbelief, "this really couldn't be happening" knowing it was real. All too real.

Afterward the clouds of dust and grime filled the neighborhood. Those from the towers themselves that were able to save themselves stumbled through the streets, dust laden, gasping. Some passed us by with the firm helping the injured. It was a scene of utter desperation and horror exacerbated hundred fold when the second tower began to buckle and went down. The devastation was captured in that extraordinary tome "Here is New York" incorporating photos of pictures taken by those at the scene including a few of my own.

For weeks and months thereafter the site of the destruction and the surrounding streets and neighborhood became a ghost town for all except the emergency workers and those few residents who chose or had no alternative but to stay in the choking air and turbulence of what had become a bomb site. The photos of the missing were posted all over, posted by families in the hope of learning something, anything of the fate of their loved ones.

And yet, after it happened, this heinous crime was celebrated in some parts of the world. While elsewhere in the world there was compassion and shared sadness with the horror and the loss of so many innocent lives. From most everywhere came offers of help and condolence.

Given the trauma of the event. Given the rawness still of that moment not only to the city, the nation and most especially the thousands of families directly impacted who feel its pain every day and will continue to to the end of their lives, one needs ask what is now appropriate.

Whether a mosque built in memoriam as a chapel of respect and prayer so near to the site of the event would be welcome given the religious roots of the attack is debatable, and perhaps best left to those victims most directly impacted to decide. One could well imagine such a shrine to the loss and horror of that day and time would be a gesture of reconciliation appreciated and respected by many if not all.

But to build a swimming pool, a theater, where one is meant to come play and frolic, to be entertained at the very site where thousands of Americans horrifically lost their lives smacks of gross insensitivity or worse yet, triumphalism. No one doubts that it is the right in this country of every religion to build a house of worship, but to build an entertainment center under the guise of 'community center', and 'religous freedom' is a canard that should be seen for what it is. And it borders on the ugly in its insensitivity, and dangerous given how these 'community centers' have been used to radicalize adherents to the faith in nations throughout the world, especially in those countries with their open societies that have been welcoming under the tenets of communal citizenship and religous rights.

We all need pray that God gives us the ability to deal wisely in this matter.