First – a special note. I am no longer “Elrod” (at least on TMV). I am Aaron Astor and I have been for about 37 years and 2 weeks.
A few years ago I visited a friend of mine who lived about five blocks north of Ground Zero. He lived in a building with many residents who still suffer from 9/11 syndrome, which is a byproduct of the nasty construction material (including asbestos) emanating from the collapsed buildings. It was the first time I’d been to Ground Zero (I used to visit the WTC a lot) and there were two things that stood out to me. First, the most moving area was the St. Paul’s Chapel where photos of missing loved ones adorned the gate for months after 9/11. It’s a very peaceful space in the midst of Lower Manhattan’s commerce and clutter.
But another image stuck with me too: vendors. Lots of vendors hawking obscenely inappropriate “memorabilia” surrounding the old World Trade Center or the 9/11 attack itself. It just struck me as wrong to have what one writer calls 9/11 porn plastered on the construction walls surrounding the site.
There are many ways to desecrate a space considered literally – or figuratively – sacred for cultural, national or religious purposes. Other than rank vandalism or property destruction, kitchy tourist schlock is probably the most common and offensive way to desecrate a place. Surely there are places in the world above and beyond streetscape commerce.
Another way to desecrate a place is to surround it with a contentious message that seems to mock or undermine the significance of the place. Civil war sites, of which I’ve seen more than my fair share, often fall victim to this. Near the Harper’s Ferry site, for example, is a grossly offensive plaque placed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy praising the “submissive negro” Heyward Shepherd, who happened to be the first victim of John Brown’s raid.
So, is the Cordoba Institute mosque planned for the vicinity of the Ground Zero an example of desecration like the Heyward Shepherd memorial? Or does the proliferation of 9/11 porn do more violence to the sacred memory of what transpired there nine years ago?
Note that this is not about First Amendment rights. Of course the Cordoba Institute has the right to build a mosque there. Nobody who takes the First Amendment seriously could conclude otherwise. But is it wise? There is already a mosque nearby. And there is a mosque in the Pentagon, also hit on 9/11. So, is the Cordoba Institute really all that different? It’s hard to know. And the reaction to it seems so similar to other anti-mosque protests around the country that the sacredness of Ground Zero seems less important than that there are Muslims in America who seek a place to worship.
In the end the decision is up to the residents of Manhattan and the supporters of the mosque project itself to work it out. If the Cordoba Institute is not the fifth column madrassah that the demagogues fear, and is, rather, just a large but ordinary mosque to serve the many Muslims who live and work in the area then it is no desecration at all to build it there.
If the mosque really is just a mosque then its construction is more a testament to religious tolerance – a bedrock value of America – than it is a desecration of a place attacked by extremist Muslims.
But the 9/11 porn that surrounds the area IS a desecration in a way that no mosque is. The shameless profiteering off this space is so offensive because it cheapens the entire memory of that horrible day. It’s fine to sell post cards and other items of the Twin Towers. But there should be some kind of restriction against hawkers of this stuff so close to the place where thousands of Americans died. Look to Civil War sites – again – if necessary. National parks at Chickamauga, Shiloh and Chancellorsville sell books and postcards in bookstores. But you don’t see people selling pictures of rotting corpses while traipsing through the Hornet’s Nest at Shiloh. The battlefield’s sacredness is preserved by restricting commerce around it. Note that some places like Vicksburg and Gettysburg have come in for serious criticism because of their failure to control this unseemliness – though usually just outside the Park boundaries.
Perhaps that is what is needed at Ground Zero – a true museum and visitor’s center. It could include a gift shop that tastefully chooses products to sell. And then the city needs to revoke vendor permits so close to the Ground Zero site. That would do more to sanctify the space than keeping out a mosque.