Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Let The Dead Bury The Dead

Thomas Dumm
Amherst College

The controversy concerning what is now called “The Ground Zero Mosque,” even though the proposed Islamic community center in lower Manhattan is neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero, is in many ways the product of the evangelical capitalist resonance machine. Following a path that is spookily like the Astro-turfed Tea Party movement, what was once an experiment in false outrage has metastasized into something much greater. And already, as if on cue, the faux-wise Washington commentator David Wills, on the August 22nd edition of This Week on ABC has suggested that the whole affair is overblown, a product of the August slow news cycle, and that soon voters would turn their attention to more serious stuff like the economy.
But as with the strange radicalism of the Tea Party movement, which was fueled by racial hatred, there is clear evidence that racism and religious bigotry is fueling much of outpouring of indignant rage among those who are protesting the building of Park 51. And in this case, one of the strongest claims that many protesters are making -- that the site of the Twin Towers is a sacred place that must not be defiled, a place where several thousand people died – is perhaps the most dangerous claim that can be made, because it entangles the very meaning of what it is to be a human being with a politics of exclusion.
What is a sacred place? We usually associate such a place with houses of worship, but we also include graveyards, mausoleums, and, more personally, places where we scatter the ashes of the dear departed. The site of the World Trade Center qualifies as such a place, but in a very particular and quite unusual sense. Many of the bodies of the dead denizens of Ground Zero were not recovered, but were figuratively vaporized, turned into ash or so badly crushed as to be beyond recognition, torn into scattered bits.
(Just about everyone remembers that day, 9/11, where they were, what they were doing when they heard the news. I happened to be at Brigham and Women’s Hospital with my wife, who was undergoing her monthly monitoring for the return of her cancer. We arrived there shortly after the towers were hit, and watched them collapse while waiting for her to have an MRI. Our appointment with her surgeon was cancelled shortly after that, and the hospital was put on lockdown. We later learned that Brenda’s physician was the head of the emergency response team for the hospital and had been called upon to coordinate their trip to New York to care for the wounded. But later that day, their trip was cancelled. It seemed that there were few wounded survivors, that the vast majority of people there that day either escaped physically unscathed or died on site.)
That we remember this place as sacred, then, is a consequence of our knowing that the remains of many dead people are still there. It is the oldest of religious beliefs that humans have held, that we worship our dead at the place where they are buried. Burial itself is a uniquely human activity, the very word human being etymologically connected to humus, earth, decay and dust. Indeed, as the great philosopher of history, Giambattista Vico noted long ago, burial is among very first of human institutions. Robert Pogue Harrison, in The Dominion of the Dead, notes that the very first houses that we built were not for the living, but for the dead.
So the real anger incited by those who claim the defiling of a sacred place is understandable, even though the claim itself is false. This site is sacred, but in the most ecumenical sense possible. All of the major world religions were represented among those who died, and undoubtedly some atheists, mystics, and animists as well. Their molecules mingle there. If those who wanted to preserve the site as a more exclusive place, it is already too late to do so.
But the resistance to the community center in New York has had the classic racist effect of insinuating that Muslims are less than human. Islam, the most modern of the major religions, is thus seen as the religion of a particular race. As Franklin Graham recently explained on CNN, Muslimism is transmitted by the father to the child. Once again, the question of blood transmission of religion rises as an issue in determining one’s identity. A rich irony here is that a recent Time magazine poll on tolerance of religious beliefs indicated that Americans are most tolerant of Jews and Protestants, only 13% having unfavorable views of them, followed by Catholics, at 17%, then Mormons at 29%. Muslims? 43% of Americans hold unfavorable views of Muslims. That Americans hold such a tolerant view of Jews and such an intolerant view of Muslims might suggest that a new form of anti-semitism is emerging here in the United States, with Americans disavowing the old form of anti-semitism by showing their love for Jews, thus freeing them to vent their hatred on Muslims.
In other words, while the specific issues concerning the current Ground Zero controversy may indeed fade to the background as the fall elections approach, the undercurrent of hatred that has fueled is not about to fade away, just as the Tea Party, a not unassociated movement – the August 22nd demonstration against 51 Park contained self-identified Tea Party members – is not about to fade away. It has become a matter of blood now, in more than one sense.


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