08/25/2010 05:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mosques, Masks, Politics and the Truth

I had scheduled an interview in Lower Manhattan this week, and to get there I took the Number 2 subway three stops from Penn Station to Park Place and then walked. Although it touches Broadway, this Park Place hardly resembles the storied spot that we know from that most exclusive stretch of the Monopoly board. New York's Park Place is only three blocks long, and those blocks are nothing to write home about, although it seems that we can't stop talking about the plans of a Muslim group to build a big Islamic center and prayer room there.

A block and a half from the subway stop is the old Burlington Coat Factory building that would be torn down to make way for the Islamic center if plans move forward. Although it is called a factory, this is not a former clothing manufacturer, as I saw it described in a London newspaper. Nor is it anywhere near Burlington, New Jersey, where the first discount clothing store by that name opened in the 1970s. It is a dumpy, inelegant wreck of a building that has been vacant since shortly after it was fatally damaged by wreckage from one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Of course, that linkage to 9/11 has transformed what would have been a routine zoning issue into a heated national debate. The afternoon I walked by knots of men lingered outside the building. One carried a sign admonishing New Yorkers. "You are siding with the enemy" it said, presumably because city officials, led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have refused to intervene. Someone was selling T-shirts. A lot of close, face-inches-from-face, debating was going on. Even a sidewalk tree planted not long ago held a sign. It read "Please, No Dogs! Feces and Urine Kill!" This is a community that is not afraid to express itself.

The front door to the Dakota Roadhouse, a big saloon alongside the old Burlington building, was wide open; faint honky-tonk music tumbled out and mixed with the debaters' high dudgeon. Farther west, on the other side of the doomed building, I passed the Amish Market, a local green grocer that is housed in a building that a brass plaque outside recognizes as the site of the original home of King's College, an institution that was committed to principles of religious liberty and that is now known as Columbia University. Quite a mixed bag of history, culture and tolerance for just one city block.

As I kept walking I passed the pocket park at West Broadway and Vesey where almost exactly a year ago I had watched a group of local politicians, union leaders and rescue workers about 100 strong make a passionate plea for Congress to reopen the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund to help those who have become sick since working on the ground zero cleanup. They used microphones and speakers but hardly anyone heard them because of the traffic and the construction sounds all around--a fitting metaphor for the group's mounting frustration.

Because I did not have to wait for any traffic lights to change, the three block walk from Park Place to the massive base of One World Trade Center, formerly known as the Freedom Tower, took about four minutes. Standing in front of the steel superstructure of the tower that is replacing the destroyed trade center, it became quite clear that the so-called ground zero mosque would not really be at ground zero. I could neither see the Burlington Coat building, nor could I hear anything coming from it. And yet the surging rhetoric of politicians who are shamelessly using the issue to gain political advantage seemed impossible to drown out.

I understand that this is an election year, important in many ways, but I am dismayed at the willingness of candidates to willfully inflame passions in an attempt to gain votes. And it doesn't stop with any single candidate but goes right to the White House. After the president seemed to support the idea of the Muslim community building a center on Park Place, he backtracked. Then, facing intense political heat for his comments, he said he didn't actually support anything except the group's right to build wherever it wanted. He was still reeling from the blowback when a group of 9/11 responders--many of the same people whose voices had not been heard a year earlier--called him out on this. Mr. Obama then said he supported the bill to reopen the Victim Compensation Fund and would sign it if Congress passed it.

While that might have put him temporarily in the good graces of this part of his base, that's a significant if. During the summer there had been a royal scrimmage over the bill to reopen the fund, which went down to defeat in the House with both sides of the aisle blaming each other. The thousands of men and women who had worked on the smoking pile of debris, some with respirator masks but many without, were stunned. They shouldn't have been. Their fate has been a political football for years now. Throughout the Bush Administration there was plenty of talk about "patriotic sacrifice," but when it came time to pony up the money to screen and take care of workers who had come down with a range of respiratory illnesses linked to breathing the dust, there was little but caviling from Washington. At one point, New Yorkers were called "money grubbers" for trying to get special help for responders.

There have been more flip flops on responder health care than there have been designs for the memorials at ground zero. The city itself initially denied anyone had become sick from the fumes. Then, as evidence mounted, it changed tactics and pressed for Washington to pick up the tab for taking care of the sick, even as it fought tooth and nail in federal court to deny the claims of nearly 10,000 firefighters, cops and construction workers who had sued the city and the contractors who the city had hired to help with the massive cleanup.

That litigation is now at an endpoint. A $712 million settlement has been proposed, even though the plaintiff lawyers have not proved that any of the 350 diseases their clients claim are conclusively linked to exposure to the dust. In Congress, the tab for reopening the victim compensation fund is estimated at between $7 billion and $10 billion, also without any conclusive proof for many of the diseases that workers have contracted.

An important principle is at stake here--The truth trumps all. We, as a society committed to the well being of all people, may decide that it makes sense to offer blanket health care for all 60,000 people who worked or volunteered at ground zero. Our courts may decide that justice calls for compensating everyone who signed up with aggressive personal injury lawyers and sued the city--whether or not they were actually sickened by the dust or simply fear that they might be.

But only science and medicine can define the link between contaminants and disease, and we need to be careful to make sure that at some point, sooner rather than later, we set the record straight about what we know, and what we don't yet know. Without a strict adherence to the truth, innocent people can be frightened unnecessarily. Facts then can take strange shapes, and that can result in such distortions as stores being confused with factories, distances being grossly misrepresented, and inflamed passions and desperate politics taking the place of right and wrong.