Trinity Church at Broadway and Wall Street in Lower Manhattan, within shrapnel’s distance of ground zero—the former Twin Towers—is one of New York City’s oldest and most beautiful buildings. Its 281-foot Gothic revival spire once towered over surroundings not yet darkened by Wall Street’s more dividend-worshiping cathedrals. The first service was held, in a previous incarnation of the church, in 1698. George Washington’s inauguration was followed by a service there in 1789. Alexander Hamilton and John Jay are buried in its graveyard, which doubles up as part of the tourist attraction Trinity has almost always been, though the place still caters to diehard Episcopalians and nostalgic Anglicans (the church was strictly Anglican in its first editions).
Episcopalians and Anglicans have a rich, revolting history of enslaving blacks, massacring Indians and terrorizing both in North America, even as Trinity’s own members scratched their names onto state and federal constitutions laminated by the language of liberty. That doesn’t lessen Trinity Church’s beauty and necessity at the heart of New York City’s history: the wealthy Trinity Church parish played an important role in the Anglican movement to abolish slavery. It established schools for slaves, freed blacks and Indians, and helped finance the operations of 1,700 churches worldwide. The denomination wasn’t the problem. Some of its adherents’ arrested morals were.
And are: the same arrested morals are playing out again by Christians, Jews and non-denominational bigots, politicians pandering for votes especially, in the attempt to keep a $100 million, 15-story Islamic center and mosque from going up two blocks away from ground zero. Last week even the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, usually a staunch and admirable crusader organization against intolerance of any kind, switched sides on this one and joined the anti-mosque sham. Republican politicians across the country have added the proposed mosque to their list of foaming non-issues they know they can exploit for votes from those who confuse patriotism with chauvinism.
And the likes of Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have inflamed the national movement against the mosque by declaring the project not only a desecration of ground zero, but by lying about its location. In their geography of hate, where precision never matters as much as expedience, the mosque would be at ground zero, not near it. There are no plans for the thing to have its own spires, its own minarets, its own muezzins calling the faithful to prayers, but that’s how the building is being portrayed in the national imagination, as if minarets were missiles pointed at the “hallowed” grounds of ground zero, where 19 Muslim terrorists killed 2,750 people, many of them Muslims, in 2001. Yet to Gingrich, the mosque is “a political statement. It’s not about religion, and is clearly an aggressive act that is offensive.” So much for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the local community board and the city’s landmarks commission all giving their overwhelming support for the project.
One of the reactionary voices against the project is that of Bernard Kerik, the convicted felon and former New York City police commissioner. He managed to tweet his opposition from federal prison by linking the people behind the project to terrorists. This is the same Kerik who thought nothing of taking his book publisher to an apartment overlooking ground zero—an apartment reserved for rescue workers—to have his trysts there. Talk about desecration. Other opponents of the project are no less lurid for their desecration of American values. It’s as if tolerance, freedom of religion and building bridges among religions were inapplicable values the moment Muslims are in the picture. As if a mosque two blocks from ground zero has any less right or need to be there than Trinity Church.
But even some of the mosque’s defenders in the media have adopted the distasteful compromises of the less explicitly bigoted. Like Clyde Haberman, who wrote an otherwise powerful column on the subject in The New York Times, they point to that two-block distance as if it were a redeeming buffer. They note that absence of spires of minarets as if it were a notable concession, though the Islamic Center at East 96th Street in Manhattan, some five miles north of Ground Zero, has a dome and a tall minaret. (In the mid-1990s, the Muslim population of New York City was estimated to be between 400,000 and 600,000 and growing faster than any other religion.) They never note the symbolism of Trinity’s equidistant presence to the south–Trinity is actually closer to ground zero: you can see the site from Trinity’s cemetery–though Christianity’s murderous and dehumanizing blight on the North American continent by far exceeds anything Islam has ever managed here, and likely ever will.
History’s convenient demarcations aside, what if the proposed Islamic center was at ground zero? Given the center’s aims—to educate, to preach precisely the gospel of moderate Islam reactionary commentators have been badgering the Muslim world (inaccurately, for the most part) for not preaching and practicing, to foster understanding and enlightenment about Islam and between religions—given those aims, the center shouldn’t be near ground zero. It should be at ground zero. More than that: it should tower over it. It should occupy several floors of the so-called Liberty Tower that has finally, barely begun to rise after nearly 10 years of delays.
The mosque and Islamic center should be an integral part of the rebirth of ground zero because that’s what America stands, or ought to stand, for: not liberty as a pretentious slogan on a skyscraper or in pledges of allegiance cheapened by rote, but liberty as living proof of its meaning; liberty embodied and realized where it matters—in the way we live and relate to each other.
There is an offense here, to borrow Gingrich’s characterization. There is aggression. It is opposition to the mosque by politicians trolling for votes, whose standing on the issue is corrupted by their motive. It is opposition to the mosque by families of the dead, who have no greater claim to sanctity on the issue than anyone else. It is the veiling of an American value with something threaded out of Saudi or Taliban playbooks against other religions. The desecration in the making is to still call that building rising out of ground zero the “Liberty” tower.