As everyone knows, there has been much Sturm und Drang about the proposed Park 51 project (a.k.a., the "Ground Zero mosque") and its proximity to the lower Manhattan site where the World Trade Center Towers stood before 9/11. Let me say at the outset that I'm not going to comment much here on the merits or demerits of that specific project or the shameful vitriol it has inspired, though I recommend you take a look at the interesting exchange between fellow-bloggers Dr. Trott ("9/11: Burning Korans and Other Acts of Cultural Terrorism") and Anotherpanacea ("The Politics of Crazies") on that matter. Rather, I'm interested in one small rhetorical device often employed in these discussions, namely, that Ground Zero is a "sacred site." Whatever else one may think about the possibility of different religions' sacred sites existing in close proximity to one another, it is clear that the designation of Ground Zero-- where people of all faiths, and no faith, perished together-- as "sacred" is a contentious claim. Even more so as its sanctity is as the exclusive property of one particular religious faith.
I am inclined to think that the site known as Ground Zero is sacred. I follow Thomas Dumm's basic reasoning (in his article "Let the Dead Bury the Dead") on this point: "That we remember this place a sacred is a consequence of our knowing that the remains of many dead people are still there." Sacred sites, as Dumm rightly argues, are not confined only to places of worship, but also include "graveyards, mausoleums, and places where we scatter the ashes of the departed." Of course, it could be argued, a liberal application of that definition might leave no patch of earth on the planet unconsecrated, as darkness has been drawn over the eyes of human beings practically everywhere in the course of our species' tragic history. The reason that Ground Zero deserves special consideration here, I think, is because it is not merely a place where people died, but it also represents a place where those deaths came to be invested with a broader, communal, truly ecumenical significance. ("ecumenical": from Greek oikoumenē "the inhabited world," from feminine of oikoumenos, present passive participle of oikein "to inhabit," from oikos "house." That is to say, Ground Zero is our home, all of us in the inhabited world.) It is, in that way, sacred beyond and despite it's symbolic import as a place of death. It is also sacred as a site of collective constitution, fabrication, redefinition-- a place where the living and dead commune. That sort of consecration need not involve tradedy. Independence Hall in Philadelphia is sacrosanct in the same way.
I worry that what is missed in the invocations of Ground Zero as a "sacred site" is the fact that its sanctity belongs to everyone in our co-inhabited world, that custody of it is not exclusive, and that the effort to employ it as an instrument of division is an act of desecration, not devotion.