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Although my normal blogging beat is movies, I’ve been writing 9/11-related pieces since September 2001. I live in New Jersey, but New York is practically my second home city; I went to school there, and I’m there all the time for screenings and such. On September 11, 2001 I watched with my own eyes from my balcony at work across the Hudson in New Jersey as the towers burned and fell.

I didn’t know anyone who died at Ground Zero, but my brother-in-law, whom I mentioned in that first story and in other 9/11 related pieces, was in the dust cloud on that day. Almost exactly five years later, right at the time that numerous cases of 9/11-related respiratory ailments began cropping up, he suddenly succumbed to an explosively aggressive leukemia and died; he also had some sort of growth in his lungs. My wife Suzanne, an RN, thinks his death was probably 9/11 related. Her diagnostic track record is scary accurate, and I’m inclined to credit her.

There are still gaping wounds left from the September 11 attacks. One of those gaping wounds is Ground Zero itself, which to this day is still significantly “a huge, noisy, and dirty pit with almost no visible architectural progress,” in the words of Christopher Hitchens.

As hostile as he is to Abrahamic religion generally and Muslim extremism in particular, Hitchens makes interesting reading for his statement of the case against opposition to the plans to build a large Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero. Some of the opposition’s rhetoric, as Hitchens rightly argues, has been overheated, manipulative, strident sophistry. For that matter, so has some of the rhetoric on the other side. There has been a great deal of heat but too little light from either side.

On the one hand, appealing to an outrageously inflammatory analogy, Newt Gingrich recently said, “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington”—as if all Muslims, not just extremists and terrorists like al-Qaeda, were morally equivalent to Nazis. On the other hand, New York City Mike Bloomberg, an ardent advocate of the project, has repeatedly floated the equally outrageous and offensive claim that opposing the mosque is tantamount to wanting “the terrorists to win without firing a shot.”

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s wife Daisy Khan, who is co-sponsoring the project with her husband, has described opposition to the mosque as “beyond Islamophobia. It’s hate of Muslims.” Unfortunately, some opponents seem happy to live up to her assessment. But this isn’t the whole story. You wouldn’t have figures like Archbishop Dolan and Governor Patterson offering to step in and help resolve the issue if the whole controversy was a matter of bigots and cranks. Their willingness to become involved is an indication that there is in fact something there.

Getting to the bottom of it amid the rhetoric, though, is daunting. Opponents have dubbed the project the “Ground Zero Mosque,” “9/11 Mosque” or “Mosque de Triomphe”—language that critics have satirized by talking about the “Burlington Coat Factory Mosque,” while some advocates have claimed that it’s “not a mosque” at all. None of this rhetoric on either side is unproblematic.

Opponents reach for provocative but potentially misleading analogies: Imagine, they say, a Japanese monument at Pearl Harbor—or, conversely, an American monument at Hiroshima. And what about the Carmelite nuns at Auschwitz whom Pope John Paul relocated in response to Jewish objections? Critics object to these analogies, more or less credibly, while floating highly dubious analogies of their own: Imagine someone objecting to building a Christian church near the site of the Oklahoma City bombing.

A lot of questions and insinuations have been raised. Who’s paying for the mosque? Does the money have ties to terrorism? Who’s behind the opposition? Are flames of anti-Muslim sentiment being fanned for political gain? What about plans for a shopping mall on Ground Zero itself: Where’s the patriotic outrage over that? What about the Greek Orthodox church destroyed on 9/11: Why are authorities allegedly stonewalling them over previous agreements to rebuild the church on a nearby parcel of land while the Cordoba project is fast-tracked?

There are way too many issues to tackle here, but I’d like to try to shed a little light on some of the key issues and help clear the air for reasonable discussion among those willing to engage in it.

Next: Mosque or Community Center?

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