Shortly after the 9-11 tragedy, my students, a colleague and I wrote a piece on the incredible skill and leadership we saw during the emergency response to the attack on the World Trade Center, and published it in the Public Administration Review. For me and my students, this paper was an effort to use our analytic skills to make some sense of the worst disaster we had ever witnessed: To try to gather lessons on how to reduce the loss of life caused by the horror of terrorism.
New York is a big city, but it is really a collection of small neighborhoods, and everyone who lived here on that day was touched by the attack on the World Trade Center. My office is on 118th street and Amsterdam Avenue on a high floor that faces south. That morning I remember seeing a white-gray cloud of smoke high in the sky followed by the fighter jets circling the island and its eerily empty air space. My office is about eight miles from ground zero, but it seemed awfully close that day. I remember that morning walking down Broadway toward my daughters' school to check on them and thinking about where the next attack would come. Like many New Yorkers, I knew people who died that day and others who escaped from the World Trade Center. That crisp blue later summer morning of 9/11 is never far from the consciousness of any New Yorker.
Since publishing that piece, I have stayed away from the discussions of the events of 9/11 for two reasons; first it always cuts too close to my heart and the nightmare vision of that day; and second because I am completely disgusted by the political use of the attack for selfish partisan, political purposes. It started with Karl Rove and George Bush when they squandered the opportunity to unite America in order to secure their power base. It continues today with Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Rick Lazio and many others who are now exploiting the discussion of the siting of an Islamic community center and mosque a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center.
The siting discussion is a legitimate, if misguided one, which seemed to be following the typical path of most New York City development discussions until the political hacks got a hold of it. All development ideas in New York City end up contentious and intense. This is a crowded place, and especially in Manhattan, building something new is never easy. Stopping development is the rule not the exception. But stopping development because someone finds the practice of a religion nearby "insensitive" is simply wrong.
That is why I was never prouder of Mayor Bloomberg than when he stood up on Governor's Island and said:
We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors. That's life and it's part of living in such a diverse and dense city. But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11... Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question - should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here. This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions, or favor one over another.
That is precisely the point. This is a place that was built on diversity and thrives on it. We are a target to the terrorists because what we stand for is the opposite of their beliefs. Our tolerance and diversity is a distinct threat to the vision of a world-wide theocracy. Our strength and power is derived from the "gorgeous mosaic." New Yorkers don't need people from Alaska and political opportunists like Lazio telling us where and how to develop our city. We also do not need sensitivity lessons about the hurt and horror of 9/11. It is never far from our thoughts. How could it be?
Over the past several years I have had the honor of teaching in the New York Fire Department's Officer Management Institute. Through that program I've had the opportunity to teach management and learn from some of the most dedicated people I've ever known. They are truly New York's "bravest." On September 11, 2001, the Department lost 343 fire fighters. That loss is deeply embedded in the psyche and organizational consciousness of the FDNY. They deserve more than the political circus now underway. Instead of focusing national attention on a community center at the site of the old Burlington Coat Factory, why couldn't these political "leaders" do something truly useful like vote for the proposed $7.4 billion statute named in honor of the late Detective James Zadroga to provide health care and compensation for the first responders harmed by their work at the World Trade Center site?
Instead, we see a bunch of second rate political operators playing on everyone's emotions and turning a legitimate discussion of a New York City land use issue into a political football. My view is that turning this siting issue into a political talking point is almost as bad as the effort to demonize the Muslim religion. Both serve to trivialize the suffering of the victims of this attack. This ugly debate is unworthy of their memory, of this city, and of this country.
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