Obama Missed the Point With Confusing Ground Zero Mosque Comments

We try to teach this to our kids all the time: that what the rules allow is not always what is best.

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Over the weekend, President Obama made several statements about the “ground zero mosque controversy, in which a Muslim businessman is seeking to build a $100 million, 13-story mosque for the purposes of “reconciliation” near the site of the terrorist attacks. Last week, New York Gov. David Paterson offered to help the builders find an alternate sight in Manhattan, but the offer was refused.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on the "ground zero mosque" controversy.]

The president’s confusing remarks over the weekend seemed to focus on the right of the businessman to build on private property, and on everyone’s constitutional right to religious freedom. But by focusing on constitutional rights and not on the “wisdom” of the decision, as he put it, the president is missing the point. The question is not what is legal--we all know it’s legal to build on private property, and to worship freely--but what is appropriate. We try to teach this to our kids all the time: that what the rules allow is not always what is best. Just because something is legal doesn’t make it a good idea. We try to teach kids to be sensitive to the situation, to what is appropriate, to what works best for everyone. That’s a hard thing to teach, and many times adults fall short themselves. That’s why this situation is so difficult. People are falling short on both sides.

What’s making this mosque question so controversial is the difference between legal and moral, between good and bad judgment. I think that’s what opponents of the project are saying, often in a ham-handed way: that this is a debate about sensitivity, about respect, and the gray area between right and wrong. If this really was about reconciliation, the backers of the project would realize that if anything, they’ve set back the cause of reconciliation by 10 years. They’d realize that the feelings they’ve stirred up among New Yorkers are still too fresh, too raw, to continue right now. New Yorkers haven’t even built a memorial to the victims yet.

The gracious thing to do would be to relocate. But you can’t force graciousness. 

I was reading recently about the 65th anniversary of the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, which was held earlier this month in Japan. Here’s what jumped out at me: for the first time, the United States sent a delegation to the memorial. According to the Washington Post, “Concerns that attending the anniversary ceremony would reopen old wounds had kept the U.S. away until this year.” I realize that the atomic bomb was very different from 9/11--it was an action that took place in wartime; and was ordered by a government, not religious extremists; and it killed 140,000 people, far more than the 3,000 who died on 9/11. Nevertheless, the United States waited 65 years to attend a one-day ceremony because our government was trying to be sensitive to the victims and their families. 

That’s the difference between good and bad judgment, between making people comfortable and uncomfortable. The latest polls show a majority of Americans are uncomfortable with the location of this mosque--not with religious freedom, or private property rights--and they’ve got a point. The problem is, there’s not much anyone can do about it because it’s legal. Unless the project’s backers suddenly decide to become truly reconciliatory, it sure looks like there’s going to be a mosque built at that location. 

  • Check out our editorial cartoons on the “ground zero mosque” controversy.
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