The current fight over the building of an Islamic study center near Ground Zero here in Manhattan is reminiscent of another battle nearly thirty years ago. Then, too, ignorance, rage and prejudice threatened to destroy the creation of something intended to help mend a grievous wound and foster understanding and reconciliation.
In May 1981, a jury of architects and sculptors announced the results of a nationwide competition to design a Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Congress had authorized the setting aside of three acres of National Park Service land near the Lincoln Memorial. More than 1,400 design submissions came in, so many they took up more than 35,000 square feet in a hangar at Andrews Air Force Base outside the capital. Each entry was numbered so that the identities of those submitting remained anonymous.
The winner, by unanimous vote of the jury, was Number 1026 -- a massive, horizontal V made from polished black granite: two walls, each 246 feet, nine inches across, inscribed with the names of more than 58,000 Americans killed during the Vietnam War. In the words of Jan Scruggs, the ex-infantryman who came up with the idea of building a monument, "As you looked at the other designs, they were miniature Lincoln Memorials. There was the helicopter on the pole, there was the army helmet with dog tags inside. They seemed so banal and average and typical compared to this."
But many screamed in protest, including two who had been supporters of the idea of a Vietnam memorial and prominent fundraisers for its construction: billionaire H. Ross Perot and now Democratic senator from Virginia Jim Webb, who wrote to Scruggs, "I never in my wildest dreams imagined such a nihilistic slab of stone."
Some veterans described it as a "black gash of shame" and said it was an insult, both to those who had given their lives and those who had fought and survived. Others were further outraged by the identity of the memorial's designer, a 21-year-old Yale undergraduate, Chinese-American Maya Ying Lin. Irrationally ignoring even the simple truth that the judges had no idea of her identity beforehand, the notion that a young Asian woman should be chosen to design a monument to a conflict in which the other side was Asian was attacked as a slap in the face by the bigoted and ill-informed.
As Washingtonian magazine reported, in words echoing the current Ground Zero battle, "The fight was bitter, fueled by emotions that had as much to do with the war as they did with the memorial itself. There were death threats, racial slurs and broken friendships. Memories of that time still spark pain and anger."
Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Interior James Watt, the same man who wanted to ban the Beach Boys from Washington's National Mall because he thought they attracted "the wrong element," tried to block the building permit. But eventually a compromise was made. Over Maya Lin's vehement, aesthetic objections, a statue of three servicemen and an American flag were added to the site.
Today, of course, the protests have faded to meaninglessness and Maya Lin's Vietnam wall is recognized for what it is and always was, a simple yet dramatic and eloquent expression of both service and the horrible finality of war. Now a venerated part of Washington's landscape of monuments and tributes, more than three million come to the wall every year, triple the combined number of sightseers who go to the White House and the Washington Monument. Many stop to make a pencil rubbing of one of the names engraved in the granite; some leave flowers and other mementos, or stop to stare into the polished black surface that reflects back the visitor's own face.
"It has become something of a shrine," Jan Scruggs told US News and World Report in 2007. "It has helped people separate the warrior from the war and it has helped a nation to heal." So powerful is its impact, replicas of the wall tour the country, reminding towns and villages that sent so many of their young to southeast Asia of the sacrifices made and the lives cut short by combat, then and now.
Millions will not visit the planned Islamic study center near Ground Zero (although surely they will flock to New York's someday-soon-to-be-completed 9/11 memorial). But with patience, tolerance and common sense, perhaps in the years to come, when the angry shouts have ended, it, too, will become a place where visitors -- Muslims, Jews, Christians and those of all other faiths -- can peacefully reflect not only upon a great national tragedy but on the centuries of good and evil perpetrated throughout this planet's history in the name of God, ideology and country.
Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.