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Your House is on Ground Zero (and Quite Without Permission)

In all the rancor over whether or not one group of Muslims should be allowed to build a cultural center and worship space near the site of the 9/11 attacks -- which were committed by a separate and totally unrelated group of Muslims --there is one thing above all else that no one appears anxious to point out: namely, that for any white Christian to say "Ground Zero" is off limits to anyone is possibly the most deliciously and yet grotesquely ironic thing ever suggested.

After all, there is scarcely a square foot of land upon which we tread that is not, for someone, Ground Zero. I am sitting atop one now: a killing field for Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Creek; a graveyard in which are buried the bones -- and if no longer the bones, then surely the dust -- of peoples whose evisceration occurred not so long ago, and is still remembered by those who have not the luxury of forgetting.

And so the New Yorkers who believe against all evidence that their trauma is unique in the history of the world -- or even their city for that matter -- prattle on about the "defiling" of the former World Trade Center location. Meanwhile they overlook that their precious island was itself cajoled from indigenous peoples for a handful of worthless beads. And white men have been swindling those we viewed as inferior -- be they of color, or even other white men -- ever since, especially (and this is where the geographic symbolism of their protests becomes revealing) in and around Wall Street, where the actions of wealthy investors and financiers have done far more damage than Osama Bin Laden ever could. Would that we might prohibit the construction of banks anywhere in New York so as to make a point about terrorism and our unwillingness to collaborate with it.

Indeed, if those protesting the Cordoba House were the least bit interested in consistency -- as opposed to being content to wallow in a type of hypocrisy both profound and typical -- they would, to a person, vacate downtown Manhattan immediately. And this they would do out of respect for the lives destroyed by people such as they: black peoples forced to build Fort Amsterdam for the Dutch, which is where Battery Park is now, or the walls that gave the famous street its name, or the roads, or the very auction blocks upon which their compatriots would be sold, thereby allowing 40 percent of white New York households to possess other human beings as property by the mid-1700s.

And they would vacate midtown too, especially any with Irish ancestry, since it was their ancestral fathers who - and so as to show how badly they desired to become white - burned down a black orphanage on 5th Avenue between 43rd and 44th during the 1863 Draft Riots. But I'm guessing there is an Irish Pub within walking distance of the former orphanage, and yet no one seems particularly concerned about the slight.

Truth be told, that whole city is a Ground Zero, and has been for far longer than the existence of al-Qaeda, since long before those phallic monuments to architectural ingenuity and big business were constructed, and since long before there were any airplanes capable of bringing them down. It was Ground Zero for Amadou Diallo but we still allow police to operate in the vicinity of Wheeler Street in the Bronx. It was Ground Zero for Sean Bell but we haven't banned the NYPD from around the environs of the Kalua Cabaret in Queens, where they shot he and his friends 50 times in 2006. Neither have we seen too many New Yorkers losing sleep over the inherent insensitivity towards the respective Ground Zeros for Patrick Dorismond or Timothy Stansbury Jr., both of whom were felled by police bullets, and yet which spots have hardly been made off limits to law enforcement out of respect for the dead.

That many New Yorkers in 2010, and especially white ones -- since there are few residents of the South Bronx or Washington Heights who are making their way downtown for these protests -- cannot feel those other pains hardly acquits their arrogance. That they cannot see how their livelihoods, their homes, their bank accounts, and the clothes on their backs have been paid for with the blood of innocent people, is their problem. It is not the fault of those who would build Cordoba House, and in so doing disturb the hallowed ground of what has been, most recently, a Burlington Coat Factory.

Their houses, and mine, and yours, sit atop Ground Zero. And those who died to make it so gave no permission for the construction of the homes, to say nothing of the churches that for so long were instrumental in rationalizing the slaughter. There were no building permits issued by those who died here so that we could be, as we like to say, "free." But here we are nonetheless. And it takes some nerve to pretend, even as we sleep above the graves of those extirpated to make way for us, that 9/11 was the day everything changed. Or to believe that we have the right to tell anyone where they can and cannot live, pray or work. Or to suggest that we are the only ones who have ever died, or known terror, and that having done so we now have the right to draw a circle around us, a bubble of specialness, which can keep us warm and protected as though it were an amniotic sac inside of which we will forever be insulated from harm.

We wish to be free from the pain, which is understandable. But it is not acceptable that in seeking that freedom we should ignore the pain by which we have come this far already.

Tim Wise is the author of five books on race, including his latest, Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2010). He can be reached at his website, www.timwise.org 

10 Comment count
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I really didn't know what this post's title referred to...

but I'm sure glad I read it. Thank you, as always, Tim, for opening my eyes to a new way of looking at the world around me. If I were to consume only the mainstream media's version of events, I'd likely be prattling on (as they are) about excluding Muslims from the Bill of Rights out of "sensitivity" to the victims of 9/11. Anyway, here's hoping you get a wider audience and at least some of us begin to think outside our census boxes.

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Ground Zero Larger Than We Think

Thank you for making us think. When there is this kind of controversy, there is no answer to please everyone. There are relatives of some killed on 9/11 who care deeply about freedom of religion and who do not want the Cordoba House to be asked to go elsewhere. (They may not necessarily want the mosque there but they don't want others trying to tell that congregation what to do.) If the mosque is built elsewhere now after the controversy, those relatives will be hurt. Their opinions should matter as much as those who will feel hurt if mosque is built there two blocks from 9/11 site. Who can say which relatives should be hurt? Nothing that is done--one way or the other--will bring back their loved ones. Caring people will always grieve their loss. In the meantime, poverty is rising in the U.S. and there is great suffering in Pakistan and Haiti.

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I have been a great admirer of your writings now for many years. As an African-American, I find your work and your words resonating deeply with me, particularly around the recent prattle regarding Ground Zero and the establishment of this mosque.

 When you mentioned the killing fields of the Bronx, I was momentarily taken aback because I grew up there. It made my angst palpable to me and reminded me the reason I left. So I did not end up on the working end of a policeman's gun for being the wrong color, in the wrong place at the wrong time (even if two of those could change at any moment, the third was always fixed.)

 I am a believer in the idea its how you frame the question that determines responses you receive. Our modern media seems to have a knack (intentional or otherwise) for the most incendiary framing possible, to generate the least positive response possible. (Likely to be the ones that will generate the most media exposure, most papers sold, most commercials watched.)

In the framing of your question regarding this mosque, it makes the idea very clear that if White America were truly looking for parity and healing, they would do best to vacate the country, make amends to the social groups that were decimated by their arrival and choices, and try harder to change the world without destroying everyone who does not look the same or have the same values as they do. I know. Unlikely to happen, but I can dream, can't I?

In this case, it is the closest I (and others like me) may ever get to a resolution of this apparently never-ending racial and social crisis in America today. Thank you for making my feelings real to someone besides me.

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Park 51 - to be or not to be

Thanks for this article, Mr. Wise.

As a Muslim, I have a particular interest in this issue -- not to press for the rights of my community, but to encourage a sense of cohesion into the post 9/11 American society fractured by hatred and suspicion.

My two cents:


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Common sense

With all due respect your points are very well taken. Sure, the white man has plenty of ill will in his past,enough to fill both of the old World Trade Center towers but c'mon, what race doesn't. Persians/Christians,Cowboys/ Indians, Zulu's /Tutsi's, Spanish/Aztecs, English/Irish, North/South. Common sense says let the body cool down before defacing the character that it was. IS it really that important to put a stamp on the forehead of the still remembered corpse by many a family member. Sure, they should have the right, but is it right?

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Problem Is...

That if people weren't insane, this would be considered a GREAT thing. Muslims trying to reach out to Americans, apologizing in essence for 9/11 and trying to be a positive force in changing the community? What a symbolic sign of who's winning the PR war, at least in that respect.

But people aren't being sane...  

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Great article!

As always, I really enjoyed this post. I'm glad that some of your other readers have had their mind opened to a new perspective, but I feel that many other just don't care. Most people against this center would simply say, "Well all those injustices happened so long ago, this is more recent therefore it's the only one that's important." Read: This is the only one that I disapprove of, therefore it's the only one that's important.

I lived in an Arab-Muslim country on 2 occasions, totaling 7 months. In Tunisia, about 99% of the people I encountered were the most welcoming, open-minded, wonderful people ever. Even those that were religiously devout (which were few) kept their beliefs very private. (I've written about them many times before here: http://independentlyowned.wordpress.com/) It makes me angry when people tell me that these people who welcomed me into my home want to kill us all.

People against the Cordoba Center aren't going to change their minds. They haven't had tragedy affect them on such a scale before, and they want someone to scapegoat. They don't know Muslims so they'll never be able to see beyond their blindness. They ignore the white Christian terrorists that plague our country, because they don't seem to matter. We're in a sad state, and all the logic and reasoning in the world unfortunately won't change it.

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It's sadly true that people

It's sadly true that people keep on thinking what they WANT to think, as if the heart filters words of reason to assimilate only what it wants to know. In such a world, speaking the truth clearly, repeatedly, is the only sane course. Thanks to all of you for your comments, and to Tim.

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The truth is Helen, I have read this comment over and over the past month and come to different conclusions each time. Sorry to be so honest! I think I really grip on it this time. Your right, speak the truth and be truthful about what you would want imposed on you yourself, right?

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Ron, I'm sorry--somehow I

Ron, I'm sorry--somehow I missed your comment until today. I have to say, I don't understand what you're saying here. Do you mean you've read Tim's piece over and over and come to different conclusions about it each time? Also, I don't understand your final question. Can you elucidate? Thanks!!