I’d like you to imagine for a moment. Imagine that a new apartment building has gone up in your neighborhood. It was bought by a man whom you do not know, but whose last name is immediately recognizable. It is the name of a large and extended family that has lived in your city for as long as you can remember. Perhaps this family did not immigrate so recently as to be counted among your city’s founders, but the contributions of many of its members have been substantial.
You know at least some of the people from this family – if not as friends, then as acquaintances – because you have shopped in their stores and they in yours. You have eaten at their restaurants. You have ridden in their cabs. They have worn the uniforms of your city’s protectors. They have put out your house fires. They have caught the criminals who stalk your streets. Maybe you have employed a few of them. Maybe you have even had them in your home, having known them long enough and well enough to call them, “Friend.”
All of this made for a greater horror when some members of this very large and extended family went on a killing spree. They murdered many. Some you may have known. Some you may have even called family. They even killed some of their own family, though this is rarely brought up in polite conversation. In the ensuing carnage, the actual killers were themselves killed, but this did not quell the public outrage – an outrage shared by much of the family in question. The instigators were still at-large. So, an official manhunt was declared. Unfortunately, it was badly managed; while many of the guilty were brought to justice, more than a few innocents were imprisoned or tortured or killed, simply because they shared the same last name. And to this day the chief instigator still goes free.
Though that was nearly a decade ago – nearly half a generation ago – the wounds are still fresh. This is understandable, but much of the healing has been prevented by salt being daily ground into your wounds. It is done by a group of people who are united merely by their outrage. Most do not even live in your city, nor have they visited. They have little sense of the geography or the culture of your city, beyond what the newspapers, the television, and their better-traveled friends suggest. They speak as though they know this family and what they speak is fueled by hatred and ignorance. It is also fueled by hypocrisy, for whose family history is not at least partially written in blood?
Now, at the end of this long decade, after the innocent members of this family have been subject to the humiliations born of prejudice and blind fear, one among you has decided to build an apartment building. He wishes to house his family there, though all are welcome to live in that place. It is to be a humble place – not so towering as to cast its shadow on your neighboring homes. Maybe there, he surmises, his family can regain a unity they have lost among themselves and a peace they have lost among you, their fellow citizens.
Unfortunately, many in your city – and many more outside of it – do not want him or his family there. The reason is that he has decided to build it near to where the greatest numbers of murders occurred. It will neither be adjacent to nor visible from this site, but that is a small matter; is there anywhere in your city where his family name is not a reminder of what happened? And have members of his family not lived on that same block for generations? And has it ever been right to tell someone where they can or cannot live or what they can do on their own property, simply because they share relation to the guilty? Who among us would escape such a judgment?
Now, I invite you to read this again. But this time, I want you to imagine that the city is New York City. And the apartment building is the proposed Cordoba Center mosque. And the family members are the Muslims of the world.
How will you answer these questions now?