Where were you on December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her front seat on a bus to a white woman in Montgomery, Alabama? Or on February 19, 1942, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066?
These were two of the most famous moments in U.S. history. There have certainly been many others, in this country and around the world. Most Americans today, in 2010, would agree without hesitation that what Rosa Parks did was good and right and necessary, even though at the time she only did it because her feet were tired and she’d had enough. Most Americans today, in 2010, would also agree that FDR’s ringing words about Pearl Harbor — “This is a date that will live in infamy” — equally apply to the date that FDR signed that Removal Order for Japanese-Americans to be rounded up and deported to internment camps.
How many of us, though, can assert with confidence that we would have said so had we been physically present in those actual moments?
It’s easy to recognize, today, which side of history was the correct side to be on in December 1955 or February 1942. It’s less easy to recognize which side of history is the correct side to be on when the historic moment and the present moment are the same moment.
Certainly, some people have possessed that rare combination of insight and conscience. But such moments of clarity are rare.
I think we may be in such a moment now. And it could get a lot worse if we don’t wake up and smell the coffee.
The people who oppose an Islamic community center being built two blocks from the site where the World Trade Center towers stood say that this is not an issue of religious tolerance or freedom, that of course the Park 51 project developers have the legal right to build Cordoba House at their chosen site, that this is about sensitivity to the feelings of 9/11 survivors and the friends and families of the 3,000 human beings who died in lower Manhattan on 9/11. We are told that the opposition to what is an Islamic version of the YM-YWCA has nothing to do with Islam as a religion, that there is nothing in the outcry against Cordoba House that is directed against the Islamic faith in general or against Muslims in general.
They all say this. From Pamela Geller — who tells us that she is “not anti-Muslim,” that she is only “against the ideology that inspires jihad,” and that is why she opposes what she insists on calling the “Ground Zero Mosque” — to Howard Dean, who spends 20 tortuous minutes in this interview with Glenn Greenwald, trying to reconcile two completely irreconcilable positions — that (a) Muslim New Yorkers are not being asked to give up their constitutional rights and that (b) Muslim New Yorkers should be willing to give up their constitutional rights — every single argument I have seen for why an Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero should not be built has said this. It’s not about Islam; it’s about an Islamic mosque. It’s not about Muslims, it’s about a mosque. It’s not about blaming all Muslims for 9/11; it’s about our fears that all Muslims rejoice over 9/11. We’re not saying that the Park 51 developers are allied with Al Qaeda or are implicated in 9/11, we’re just saying we don’t want a shrine to Al Qaeda next to Ground Zero. This is not at all the same as telling Rosa Parks that she should sit in the back of the bus because it makes white people afraid and mad if she sits in the front, even though of course she has the legal right to sit in the front. This is different. This here is just a zoning issue.
Here is what I am saying. Someday, many decades from now, people will look back on this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this (also see here), and wonder what people back then were thinking. Or how they could think that way. How they could just forget the past so easily.
Hopefully, though, if future generations are shaking their heads over us, they will remember that even in the worst of times there have been those who could see beyond the fears of the moment and articulate some basic truths.
The copyrighted cartoon by Bob Englehart, The Hartford Courant, is licensed to run on TMV. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.