Making the “Sacred” Profane

The culture wars’ battle du jour is being waged in defense of that most holy of American holies, Ground Zero, adding some dash to the late-August media lull when television ratings typically wilt in the summer heat.  Anger.  Disbelief.  Indignation.  It’s all part of the well-trod script of this modern-day bread and circus.

If the usual media talking heads are the first to fulminate over some contrived outrage, you can be sure that shameless pols will soon sniff out opportunity.  Candidates for office far and wide—mostly Republican, but some Democrats—have righteously condemned the “Ground Zero Mosque,” a Muslim cultural center conceived along the lines of a YMCA.  Leading the charge is Newt Gingrich who, doing his best impersonation of the godfather of wedge issues, Richard Nixon, likened the placement of the Islamic cultural center near the site of the World Trade Center to Nazi signage in front of the Holocaust museum.

The offensive analogy might deserve closer scrutiny if it were not that such inflammatory flimflam is pro forma for the former Speaker of the House.  Gingrich, it may be recalled, laid blame for the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, and the actions of Susan Smith, who in 1994 drowned her two children in South Carolina, on the culture wars’ tried and true bête noire, liberals.  Muslims, apparently, are the new progressives.

There are, of course, non-bigoted reasons to object to the cultural center, even if the “sacred” plot of land on which a Burlington Coat Factory once stood will house such nefarious dens of iniquity as a culinary school, swimming pool, and performing arts center.  Some places, the argument goes, warrant special sensitivity.  Pope John Paul II’s decision to close a convent just outside Auschwitz is often cited as a model of prudent self-abnegation that would be wise to heed in Lower Manhattan.  Even some Muslim-Americans have voiced concern.  “No one wants a center in downtown Manhattan that stands as a permanent fixture to this terrible tension,” Malik Nadeem Abid, a Muslim-American insurance agent, told the New York Times.

Nadeem Abid’s got a point if the cultural center—assuming it goes up— will continue to ruffle feathers, but the history of culture wars suggests otherwise.  There will always be bigger and better sequels, or more lurid avatars of moral depredation that shock sensitivities, especially when demagogues are sensitive to what can shock.  This is why the culture wars, like the wars on drugs and terror, will never end.  Hence, to build or not to build is not the question.  It’s the distraction.

But perhaps the most odious part of this whole episode is the sleazy hypocrisy of the self-appointed defenders of the victims of 9/11.  Many who sanctimoniously defend their memory had no qualms about exploiting it to justify a war unrelated to the atrocity of that day.  How quickly we forget—forget the conflating, the innuendo, the analogizing that led us down a dark road.  It was just a few winks ago that our leaders mentioned 9/11 at every turn to justify the unjustifiable.  During a prime-time press conference weeks before the invasion of Iraq, President Bush mentioned the attacks eight times, often referring to Saddam Hussein in the same sentence.  No wonder, then, that nearly half of Americans believed on the eve of the invasion that the Iraqi leader was “personally involved” in 9/11.

Hypocrisy is not the only link between the selling of the Iraq war then and the selling of the culture wars now.  Islamophobia is the common denominator.  Hostility to perfidious Mohammedans, which helped lend public support for America’s aggressive Middle East foreign policy in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, remains white hot.  A recent survey found that 45 percent of respondents said they thought most Muslims were not “loyal Americans;” one-third thought that Muslims should be banned from running for president.  Such religious intolerance explains why mosques across the country, not just near the site of the World Trade Center, have encountered stiff opposition.

For Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post, though, the proximity of the Muslim cultural center near Ground Zero is not a question of religious hostility but rather one of “decency.”  It is a curious claim by an Iraq war cheerleader who once callously remarked of the bungled invasion of that country which resulted in the death of perhaps as many as one million Iraqis: “We midwifed their freedom.  They chose civil war.”  Then again, for Krauthammer, like so many of his sanctimonious brethren railing against the Islamic cultural center, yesterday’s indecent exploitation of 9/11 need not preclude today’s indecent exploitation of 9/11.  All is fair in love and the culture wars.

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