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Scott Alexander: A Moral Fallacy in the Park51 Controversy

24 September 2010 Uncategorized No Comment Email This Post Email This Post

Many people of good will are justly and rationally affirming the constitutional rights of Muslim Americans to build a community center on the duly approved cite in lower Manhattan. Some of these same people, however, are asking the moral question: But should they? This question is predicated on the issue of sensitivity to the feelings of some of the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks and others who evidently believe that there is a meaningful connection between their upstanding Muslim fellow citizens and the murderous extremists who are responsible for their incredible grief and anxiety.

The problem, however, is that the question as to whether the Park51 project should move forward is based on a moral fallacy. As human beings, we must respect the suffering of all those in pain and try to do all that we reasonably and morally can to help alleviate and transform it. But this does not mean that we have to accept whatever narrative or explanation victims may attach to their suffering, especially if it is based on specious arguments, spurious accusations, and contradicts our bedrock moral principles.

A large number of Weimar Germans blamed their defeat in the First World War and the consequent dire economic and political circumstances, not on the failure of the German military, but on their socialist, communist and Jewish compatriots. This particular narrative of suffering became known as the Dolchstosslegende (i.e., “stab-in-the-back” myth), which identified German Jews as part of an international Jewish conspiracy partly responsible for the defeat in the war and the subsequent misery of the German people. There can be no doubt that the suffering of the German people in the aftermath of WWI was real. There can also be no doubt that the Dolchstosslegende—the narrative about this suffering eventually adopted, adapted, and amplified by the Nazi Party—was scapegoating steeped in fear, prejudice, ignorance, and hatred. In moral parlance, it was evil.

More recently, at the start of the Iraq war in 2003, Wilton Sekzer, a decorated Vietnam veteran ravaged with the grief of losing his son in the attack on the Twin Towers, wrote to the secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force to request that his son’s name be inscribed on a piece of ordinance to be used in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Looking back on the moment, Mr. Sekzer has described his understandable “level of anger” as “immeasurable.” He candidly recounts that he “had a certain mind-set: Let’s kill everyone there, demolish it to the point where there’s nothing taller than six inches in all of Iraq.” Since then, Mr. Sekzer and the rest of the informed American public have come to realize that the Iraqi government—and certainly the Iraqi civilians who would die by the thousands from the bombs of that invasion—had nothing to do with 9/11. The question is: should we nonetheless condone the inscribing of a bomb as an instrument of misdirected personal revenge because of a father’s legitimate grief, or because the soldiers who facilitated the action were both determined to honor the request of a distinguished veteran and legitimately angered that his son and so many other of their fellow citizens had been so viciously murdered? The sad truth is that the linkage of 9/11 with Iraq was false, thus rendering the act of inscribing Jason Sekzer’s name on ordinance used in that invasion, at best, a grave mistake and, at worst, an unintentional desecration of his memory. Our darker angels of ignorance and revenge have a tendency to bear precisely these fruits.

That is why, in the controversy over the Park51 Project in lower Manhattan, the argument regarding the sensitivities of some of the families of 9/11 victims and first-responders, as well as other intensely hurt and angry U.S. Americans is dangerously misleading. However deep and real their grief, the narrative of those who express being outraged and deeply offended by the proposed Muslim community center is, I am sorry to say, deeply flawed. It has no moral validity unless one can prove that hardworking, deeply patriotic, and peace-loving U.S. American Muslims like Imam Faisal Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan—leaders of the Park51 project—are no different than those who attacked the country they love on 9/11. Those who know them have testified that they embody the noblest aspirations of the vast majority of the U.S. and global Muslim community as they courageously and effectively struggle to stand up to a small but dangerous minority of extremists who would pervert their faith into a medium for hate.

The narrative of the outraged has no moral validity unless one buys into the wildly paranoid and pathologically cynical fantasy that the broad swath of savvy, experienced, and upright interfaith and other community leaders in New York and across the country who actually know and interact daily with their Muslim fellow Americans are all unsuspecting dupes in an effort to advance the agenda of international terrorists. I speak of people like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Rabbi Burton Visotzky of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the members of Community Board 1 who overwhelmingly approved the project, Joan Brown Campbell of the Chautauqua Institution and former Secretary General of the National Council of Churches, and many others from around the country.

In addition to muddying the waters of our civic discourse and making it appear to the rest of the Muslim world that U.S. Americans actually do despise Islam, the moral fallacy of the Park 51 controversy has had another sad consequence. It has silenced the voices of all those who have lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks whose narrative departs from the narrative of fear and suspicion. What about the feelings and convictions of those mourners who believe that the building of Park51 will be a fitting tribute to their beloved dead—a monument to mutual understanding and U.S. American pluralist values which speaks a resounding “no” to the violent, absolutist fanaticism of those who murdered their family members and friends?

I am thinking about people like Donna Marsh O’Connor who lost her pregnant daughter Vanessa on 9/11 and who is a member of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. In her support for the Park51 project, Ms. O’Connor has said publicly that “the pain of individual people cannot, should not supersede our collective values and principles—the very things we argue our families died for. And if we embody the principles of what America is, then we will survive this, we will thrive, and we will be victors over the criminals who attacked our families on 9/11.” Are voices such as those of Ms. O’Connor and other like-minded 9/11 family members to be heard and weighed in the public discourse? Should not the narratives of these victims be juxtaposed to those that are dominating our collective consciousness, so that we can determine which seem to be more rooted in rationality, truth, and civic virtue? Or are we content to allow the media preoccupation with the darker side of human nature to inform our thinking? This issue is far too critical to the maintenance of a healthy civil society here at home for us to do the latter. It is also far too vital to our national security which is inexorably linked to the hope that Muslims around the world see us as credible partners in a struggle against global terror, rather than as a society at war with Islam.

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