My wife and I visited New York’s Ground Zero in April 2004. It was a big open hole surrounded by a tall chain-link fence. The fence was still covered in mementoes — posters, photographs, prayers and tributes.
It was a weekday, and only a few people lingered by the fence to peek inside at the open pit where the World Trade Center buildings once stood. Cleanup operations had long since ended, and little else was happening while planners were still debating what to erect in its place.
Nearby, a young choir visiting from the U.S. midwest started singing “O Danny Boy.” It should have been a poignant moment, but it seemed to get swallowed up in the urban drone. This was downtown Manhattan. The city that never sleeps.
Further along the block, I paused to take a photograph. I stared at the camera and fiddled with the lens. What am I doing? What am I taking a picture of? My wife wasn’t about to pose by the fence, as if posing at a tourist attraction. It seemed intrusive, morbid; it seemed sacrilegious. I put the camera back over my shoulder and we walked on.
In those first few years after the terrorist attacks, New Yorkers were still in shock. They were like a family, coming together to absorb the unthinkable horror visited upon them. The mood was mixed — deep sorrow and confusion combined with defiance, of wanting to forge ahead, get out to the theatres and restaurants and reclaim civic pride.
And in those first few years, in New York and beyond, politicians and community leaders — including then president George W. Bush — drove home a critical point: don’t blame peaceful Muslims for the actions of a few radicals.
So, what happened?
Why do polls show that 10 per cent more Americans feel animosity towards Muslims today than in the days following 9/11? Back then, there was a difference between ordinary Muslims and violent Islamofascists. Now, the pitchforks are coming out.
Let’s ignore Mr. Burning Dove for now. Florida pastor Terry Jones and his Dove World Outreach flock were just an aberration. Their planned “Burn a Qur’an” bonfire didn’t materialize. The Qur’anflagration was called off.
Centre of controversy
The “Ground Zero Mosque,” however, is another story.
It’s not a mosque, it’s an Islamic community centre. And it’s two full blocks away from Ground Zero.
In fact, the planned centre first hit the news in December 2009, when it was widely endorsed by political and religious leaders. Even Fox News conducted a polite interview with the imam’s wife that ended with the host wishing them well.
But the narrative changed. Now, the “mosque” has become the jihadists’ victory symbol erected near the ruins of their conquest. The notion only hit mainstream news this summer. Before that, it was fodder only for crazy conspiracy nuts on the Internet.
And Fox couldn’t resist churning the septic tank forever. The network soon started fanning the flames of intolerance, as it usually does.
Almost overnight, the community centre became a “command centre for terrorism” (Fox contributer Dick Morris).
Fox host Bill O’Reilly, unswayed by the logical chasm in his words, berated one of the centre’s proponents: “The killers on 9/11 were Muslims. Now you want to build a mosque two blocks away.”
Ironically, most Muslims in North America are actually loathe to become embroiled in such controversy. Yet they are caricaturized in terms of the militant minority. Their silence and restraint is sometimes what gets them in trouble.
Speaking on Al Jazeera’s English news show “The Listening Post,” Islamic reformist Asra Nomani said Muslims do themselves no favours by avoiding the spotlight.
“I feel very much that Muslims aren’t quite ready for prime time in America. We are so scared oftentimes of getting out there in front of the media, that we cower there in the back, and people are able to then demonize (us) that way.”
Symbol of tolerance
And so, what started out as a symbol of tolerance and peace — an Islamic centre in the south end of Manhattan, where it would become part of the neighbourhood — has become the powder keg for a religious war. It has, in short, become a Ground Zero itself, where non-Muslims rally outside and shout insults and threats.
Will the madness die down? Not if networks like Fox News continue to peddle intolerance and ignorance. It is astounding to hear TV hosts coddling extremist views on air, then recoiling in innocence when the mob starts acting on their message.
Why should we care what goes on in New York City? What does it matter to us?
It matters because Canada, like it or not, is often an echo chamber of developments in the U.S. We have similar conflicts, although they may differ slightly in tone and character.
And there are Newfoundlanders serving in Afghanistan, soldiers who must deal with the delicate complexities of relating to their hosts. Their mission and safety is jeopardized by provocative events in North America.
History has proven that no man is an island. And the heightened spread of hate and intolerance in the U.S. should be troubling to us all.
Its consequences threaten to be far-reaching.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. He can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.