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The shining city upon a hill

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Mitch Traphagen photo
The sun sets over America and the coast of New Jersey. Despite the challenges the nation faces, we are still the shining city upon a hill.



I set my course east southeast and sailed alone into the Atlantic Ocean. Hours passed as the coastline of New Jersey slowly receded. From my viewpoint, the United States was bathed in the evening light. All of the chaos and hubbub disappeared to reveal only beauty. Alone in my small sailboat in the ocean, my priorities shifted. I was concerned only about the weather, waves and wind. I didn’t have the time nor did I care to watch the 24/7 news cycle. I was at peace, looking at my own nation from the outside; reveling in the freedom and opportunity I had as a citizen and in the peace the nation exuded as the sun set on another day.

It might be time to sail off the coast again, to gain some perspective at the beauty of this nation. But then I realize that when push comes to shove, the right thing always seems to happen here. As a society we are often dysfunctional, sometimes callous and sometimes lazy but in the end, we do the right thing. When push comes to shove.

I’ve struggled to separate Islam from the psychotics who use airplanes and bombs strapped to their chests to kill innocent people. I’m sure there are others struggling with the same thing. I’m not educated enough to understand Islam. Perhaps I choose not to be. But I should be smart enough to realize that Islam didn’t attack us on September 11, 2001. A group of psychotics did.

When I first heard about the “Ground Zero Mosque” I felt an immediate, negative feeling rise in my gut. “That is so wrong,” I thought to myself. More than a few people seem to believe this is Muslims sticking their thumbs into the eyes of Americans. Building an Islamic educational center in an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory store a few blocks away is not a thumb in the eye; it is potentially a huge victory for tolerance in our nation. We can show the psychotics that they have not won through divide and conquer. We are still the land of the free and the home of the brave. We are still the shining city upon a hill.

I’ve been to Ground Zero and the site is indeed hallowed ground. But I can tell you there’s a good bit of stuff in the surrounding area that couldn’t exactly be described as sacrosanct. Moreover, there already are two mosques in Lower Manhattan just blocks from Ground Zero and they have been there for years. In comparison, in Washington, D.C., the Pentagon has created a multi-faith center in which Muslims, along with Christians and Jews, pray. No one has taken issue with Muslims praying at that site, despite that it, too, is hallowed ground.

I thought of Hadidjatou Karamoko Traoré, a devout Muslim woman profiled in a recent New York Times article. Mrs. Traoré lost her husband, and her children lost their father, in the attack on the World Trade Center. It is important to remember that Muslims were innocent victims on that day, too.

Some will say that it just goes to show how extreme Islam really is — that they are willing to kill their own to in an effort to take over the world. The truth is that has nothing to do with Islam, it just shows how crazy the psychotics who did this really were.

Others will say that Islamic countries do not allow Christian churches so why should we allow mosques here? The fallacy of that argument is multifaceted. Do we really want to emulate intolerance and extremism? Aren’t we better than that? Are we really going to fall back to an eye for an eye? As a Christian, my reading of the New Testament says that we should not. Besides, there are Christian churches in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Among non-extremists, there is tolerance. That seems to go for Christians and Muslims alike.

And then comes a Glock-totin’, Islam-hatin’ preacher from Gainesville who decided he was going to publicly burn the Qur’an. The announcement from Preacher Terry Jones, with a flock of 50 heat-packing parishioners, went largely unnoticed at first until General David Petraeus brought it to the world’s stage. The general’s concern was for his troops and for the effort they were making in not only killing and marginalizing the enemy, but towards winning the hearts and minds of those who weren’t yet the enemy.

And then the media circus was on in a most embarrassing fashion.

The problem, of course, is that as long as Terry Jones and his small flock weren’t directly attempting to incite violence, they had every right to burn the Qur’an or any other book they chose. And it was the responsibility of Americans to defend that right (along with his right to carry a Glock, of course). But it wasn’t the responsibility of anyone to agree with him. Everyone had the right to publicly and loudly disagree. And that is exactly what happened.

Hours upon hours of the 24/7 news cycle were devoted to this man with a small flock. Even some members of the Islamic faith, along with Christians, agnostics, politicians and circus clowns, agreed that he did have every right to burn the holy book. But that didn’t make it the right thing to do. In the end, Terry Jones, a man of faith who sells furniture on eBay, heard the collective voices of the American public and stepped back. He said he would not burn the Qur’an, “Not now, not ever.”

Of course, you can’t turn a sausage grinder backwards and expect a pig to pop out. The gates to the circus had opened and people learned that it is possible to be a marginal figure and still take the world’s stage. Best of all, you can do it without getting arrested. At least three different groups burned the Qur’an on September 11 and none made more than a blip on the news cycle. But next week or next month, someone else will come along with something even more insane. And then the talking heads, politicians and circus clowns will pounce, looking for personal gains, leaving it to the American public to suffer through another bizarre episode before doing the right thing by shutting it down and shutting them up.

If I ran the world, my preference would be to move the Cordoba House, erroneously known as the Ground Zero Mosque, just a little further away — only because it makes so many people so uncomfortable. I don’t think the location was chosen to put a thumb into the eye of America and I don’t believe that it is some sort of passive-aggressive victory dance. There was no victory for the extremists. I do believe that it is being built at the location because it is a reasonably good site in an area with little available space. The Imam in charge of the project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, long ago publicly condemned the September 11 attacks as un-Islamic and has a reputation for pushing back against the extremists within his faith.

The bottom line is that he has every right to build anything he can legally build on his own property. He already has the necessary permits to do so. It is not the job of the government or anyone else to tell him what he can and cannot do with his own property. As Americans, whether we agree or disagree, it is our job to defend his right. Like the entire world did against Pastor Jones, we have every right to speak out against it. But when push comes to shove, we must defend his pursuit of liberty and his right to religious freedom. That is the very bedrock of this nation and no politician, talking head or circus clown should ever be able to threaten it.

On the other hand, building it in Lower Manhattan would be appropriately American. A nation of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics and atheists, putting our thumbs in the eyes of the extremists. We are not what they have long claimed us to be. Simply put, we are not them. We are better.

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