Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Is Ground Zero A "Sacred" Site?

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.


Curry O'Day said...

I think the problem is that people incorrectly associate the construction of a mosque nearby as a violation of that sacredness. Of course, there is a litany of reasons why this is an incorrect association, and those who do associate the mosque in such a way mostly depend on ad hominem, misrepresentation, and flat out lies to justify their position.

Another component of this controversy that I am interested in is what I like to call a "magic number," which in this case is whatever distance at which a mosque is no longer "inappropriate." 3 blocks? 3 miles? 300 miles? What is it? I'm not trying to commit a line-drawing fallacy here, as I do not necessarily argue that such a distance cannot be determined. What gets me is that this magic number is very vague until it is advantageous to someone in opposition to something, e.g. 2 blocks is too close to build a mosque, 2 months is too soon to start dating someone else, 2 years is too soon to make a joke about someone who died, etc. Yet when you ask someone how far away is far enough, they can only answer you in vague terms.

DOCTOR J said...

I totally agree, Curry. But still... putting aside for the moment all of the reasons FOR WHICH the claim that Ground Zero is "sacred" is often employed, are you willing to argue that it's not?

Curry O'Day said...

No. But I don't think I'm as sensitive about sacred sites as some people are.

More directly, I simply don't think building a mosque is a violation of that sacredness. We can and should dismiss the reasons why people claim it is sacred, because I believe those reasons are irrelevant to the issue. What we cannot dismiss, however, is the inaccurate identity claim linking those who would worship Allah in a Mosque in America with those who plotted and carried out 9/11. That is the ultimate fallacy that renders arguments against the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" unacceptable.

Brian said...

"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."

I actually think the anti-ground zero mosque people, by and large, agree completely with this point. In fact, they'd probably agree to it as a matter of principle. The issue, I think, is they have a very different of idea of who belongs to "our co-inhabited world."

I could be wrong, but I don't think dealing with the "sacredness" issue per se is going to get us very far practically, because I think we'll just end up dancing around the main issue, which as Curry pointed out, is an inaccurate identity claim about Islam. What about sacredness question interests you? Why do you think it may be a fruitful avenue to explore?

BTW, for what it's worth, I'd also that Ground Zero is a "sacred" site.

DOCTOR J said...

@Brian: Again, I agree with you (and Curry) that settling this question (i.e., is Ground Zero a "sacred" site?) is not going to get us very far with regard to the Project51 issue. However, we ought to be able to evaluate the merit of individual propositions within an argument, no?

I suppose what motivated my desire to isolate this particular claim was the frequency with which I saw supporters of Project51 roll their eyes when opponents of it claimed that Ground Zero is a "sacred site." I may not agree with the end-argument that the prposed Islamic cultural center should not be built near Ground Zero, but that doesn't mean I don't agree with some of the propositions used (or abused) in that argument.

Brian said...

Fair enough. From what I can tell, I think most people who dispute the "sacred site" premise do so either 1) because they think the people whose arguments they are challenging are associating all these subtle meanings and connotations--which are very frequently nationalistic and racist-- into the term "sacred sites", or 2) because it works well rhetorically to point out that the disputed two block ground zero radius area also contains porno shops and strip clubs and that the specific site in question used to be a Burlington Coat Factory.

Perhaps some people use #2 to contend that really only the site where the twin towers fell is a sacred space and not the surrounding area, but--from those I've talked to--most of them concede that they are making the point in order to persuade the people who don't yet have a strong opinion on the mosque issue. They don't feel really strongly one way or the other if you isolate the sacred space thing. But they seem to think that if they concede this point, it gives the other side a little too much ammunition in the court of public opinion.

Unfortunately, if media coverage is any kind of reliable indicator of the public opinion, they may be true. Just look at how many people came out saying that Obama qualifying his remarks, where he made a distinction between someone having a right to do something and whether or not that something was a "wise" choice, really hurt his case. And a lot of that criticism is coming from the side that generally seems to have fewer nuts! For some reason, a lot of people really seem to have trouble dealing with any kind of complexity or hint of nuance to anything related to this topic. mind=blown