More treasured than baseball and apple pie, more admired than George Washington and even the winners of American Idol, America's greatest love may be the First Amendment. Among all the amendments to the Constitution, it is by far the best known. And despite its relative brevity, it seems to embody all the symbolic freedoms that distinguish America from the rest of the world.
That's why the approval to build a mosque and an Islamic cultural center two blocks from Ground Zero is both so confusing and unnerving. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion. America is purportedly a pluralistic and open society. The mosque seems to be directed by moderate Muslims with the objective of promoting cultural awareness. What's more American than that?
Yet, the ADL, the Anti-Defamation League, a national Jewish organization dedicated to calling attention to discrimination, announced that it opposes the building of the mosque. Its longtime leader, Abraham Foxman, suggested that there is nothing wrong with the mosque in principle, other than that it should be located elsewhere. Isn't such a "Not In The Backyard of Ground Zero" argument discriminatory and un-American?
Some Jewish groups and writers have attacked the ADL for what appears to be a contradictory agenda--the paradox of supporting discrimination rather than promoting tolerance. Moreover, they fault the ADL for failing to distinguish between the moderate Muslims who will be praying two blocks from Ground Zero and who mean America no harm, and the Islamic terrorists who successfully attacked this country on 9/11 and left behind the largest body count on American soil since the Civil War.
Mayor Bloomberg, who supports the mosque, suggested that America should not discriminate based on fear. And the director of the proposed Muslim center reminded the ADL that it should not be in the business of bigotry.
The issue seems to be whether America should uphold its values and put its tolerance through the ultimate test, or whether the sensitivities of the survivors and families of 9/11 should supersede the First Amendment freedoms owed to all Americans, which would include, of course, Muslim Americans.
America's obsession with free speech has often led to the blinded misuse and abuse of the First Amendment without regard to the feelings of others--especially those who have been left wounded and broken by other calamitous historical events. Neo-Nazis were permitted to march in the Village of Skokie despite the presence of a large population of Holocaust survivors. The racist speech and emotionally violent gestures, such as cross-burnings, of white supremacists are routinely upheld as protected under the First Amendment.
The same holds true for artistic freedoms and the abuse of artistic liberties. Other than the survivors themselves, few people objected to the parade of Hollywood films that trivialized the Holocaust. And most people didn't object to the various post-9/11 movies that arrived in theaters too soon and invariably cheapened the tragic events that took place at the World Trade Center and inside those commercial jets that were turned into coffins.
There is a difference between rights, which can be protected under the law, and courtesies, the mutual respect and common decency that neighbors owe to one another. Yes, those behind the building of the mosque may have a legal right to do so, but why would they want to exercise that right given what they know of the wishes of the survivors and families of 9/11?
There are profound sensitivities associated with Ground Zero. For many it is hallowed ground. Placing a Muslim center nearly across the street, even if it is in the spirit of religious solidarity and brotherhood, even if its teachings are moderate, inclusive and secular rather than radical and discriminating, even if those who build the mosque openly acknowledge the murderous crimes committed in the name of Islam, the fact still remains that the victims don't want it there, and the ashes of the 9/11 dead will no doubt rest even less peacefully if a mosque is facing the memorial that has still not even been built to honor their death.
The approval of the mosque at Ground Zero shouldn't even be framed as a constitutional question. Nor is the issue whether the ADL is being hypocritical. Actually, the issue is whether the ADL stands alone among anti-discrimination groups in showing the proper sensitivity, decency, and respect for the dead while those in support of the mosque are simply blinded by the reflexive freedoms of the First Amendment that so often privileges speech over pain.