Monday, August 16, 2010

Finally, A Spine!

This past Friday, at a White House dinner, President Obama finally took a stand and broke his silence concerning the building of the mosque in lower Manhattan.

“We must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan. The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. The pain and suffering experienced by those who lost loved ones is unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.

“But let me be clear: as a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.”

While they were long overdue, the President’s words were, nonetheless, on target and, for me at least, refreshingly candid. Not since candidate Obama spoke on race in the wake of the Reverend Wright controversy have we heard such transparency emanating from his lips. For once, this President, though measured, knew the truth and wasn’t afraid to speak it. Bravo, sir, that took guts. And in an election year!

In all seriousness, it has taken this president almost nineteen months to make a statement that bold and courageous. Courage is rare in politics, so if I and others on the Left have been critical of Obama for lacking the testicular fortitude needed to take a stand on matters of national import, here is where we, all of us, should tip our proverbial hats and give credit where credit is due. Kudos, Mr. President.

But before we go completely overboard and give him another Nobel Peace Prize, let’s look a little closer shall we? This President has never done anything purely on altruistic terms. Every decision has been carefully planned and weighed against potential consequences. As I have said before, this may make for good politics, but it makes for lousy leadership. The building of the mosque in lower Manhattan – and let’s get one thing straight, shall we? It’s not on Ground Zero; it’s a full two blocks north of Vescey Street – presented Obama with an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.

While reading through some editorials on this issue, I stumbled upon one from the Boston Globe, which has hit the nail on the head.

“But there is a higher purpose to Obama’s somewhat surprising decision on Friday to inject himself into this dispute: He clearly understands that the best way to isolate radical Islamists is to appeal to mainstream Muslims. Around the world, mainstream Muslims are the key to curbing the spread of radicalism; at home, they are the first line of defense for average Americans, the people best-positioned to spot radical plots in their infancy. And the surest way for America to isolate and alienate mainstream Muslims is to scapegoat them for the actions of the radicals.”

Hmmm, me thinks me smells a pragmatist at work here. So there was an ulterior motive behind Obama’s bravado. Figures! But before we all jump to conclusions here and brand him an opportunist, as if that somehow disqualifies the act, I for one am going to give him the benefit of the doubt. No matter the motive it was still uncharacteristic for this president to go out on a limb politically and risk further damage to his Party in a mid-term. And for that he gets a big “attaboy” from me. It was not only appropriate for Obama to speak out on behalf of religious freedom – not to mention the Constitution – in the end it will, I feel, go down as one of his defining moments as President. It will also go a long way towards creating the kind of inroads that this country needs to make among Muslims that will hopefully heal some of the divide that exists between Islam and the West and at the same time help route out the extremists within the Islamic community. Some would call that having your cake and eating it too.

But, the real issue, apparently, is not Obama’s unusual resolve, or even the anticipated response by moderate Muslims to his overture. No, the issue at hand is the one that has plagued the country throughout most of its storied history. And that issue is its religious intolerance. The pushback against the President’s remarks has been the most telling, not to mention the most damning. And it appears to be coming from both sides of the political aisle. No doubt some of the flack coming from Democrats is owed in no small part to a concern on the part of many that anything less than a demonstrative rejection of Obama’s remarks could spell doom in November. How typical.

Political cowardice notwithstanding, I have been flabbergasted to hear the outcry from so many people, some long-time liberals who typically would despise this type of xenophobic, knee-jerk response. Quite frankly, it has left me dumbfounded to say the least. With all the polarization that has occurred in this nation over the last year and a half, most of it caused by conservatives hell bent on distorting or flat out lying about the facts, one would’ve thought that we could at least agree on one of the core tenants of our democracy: religious freedom. I guess I was as guilty of being na├»ve about this matter as progressives in general were about Barack Obama being the next FDR.

So much for the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus being real. The descent from Mount Olympus can be quite bruising. I thought, even after all the nation went through on 9/11, that we had progressed enough to appreciate the difference between the values of those who attacked us and those of our founding fathers. Yes, the wounds still run deep, and yes it will take many more years before the families of the victims – as well as the nation – can completely heal, but I suspect the greatest wound we possess is the one we still insist on inflicting on ourselves. And that is the wound of intolerance and bigotry.

We must remember what the terrorists’ real goal was. It was not the toppling of two skyscrapers or the deaths of thousands of innocents. No, the real goal was to destroy who and what we are as a nation. It is our pluralistic society – our freedom of expression and religion – that eats at them most. They cannot live knowing that a nation such as ours exists. And they are smart enough to know they can never kill all of us. They don’t have to. If we pander to our worst fears and prejudices, we have, without quite realizing or intending it, done their work for them. The moment America is no longer free for all its citizens, it is dead, not only as a democracy but also as the dream for countless millions who have always seen it as a beacon of light in a dark and often perilous world.

If we truly hate what the terrorists stood for then the best way to show it is by observing our own laws and values and by keeping that light shining brightly for generations to come. Yes the proximity of this mosque is a problem for some, perhaps many, but our laws don't say honor the right of free speech and religious expression, except where inconvenient or painful. In deed the true hallmark of a free society lies in its willingness to do what's right even under the most difficult of circumstances. We failed that test miserably during World War II when we allowed internment camps for the Japanese. This is yet another test for us. Will we pass it or fail it?  Seems to me that we can honor those who died best by preserving what it was that they died for best.

If an incurable pragmatist can shake off the shackles of his modus operandi and make a bold gesture, the very least all of us as a nation can do is look in the mirror and bite down hard.

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