Nearly nine years ago, with the ashes of the World Trade Center barely settled, then-President George Bush proclaimed Islam a religion of peace. And no one complained. No one second-guessed him. Reporters didn't scurry at Bush a week later asking if he "regretted" showing support for the Islamic faith.
In the aftermath of September 11, with the death toll still unknown, the American public accepted that al-Qaida, not Islam, had attacked the U.S.
Now, it seems, that moment of national clarity is fading into the mist. Listen to the backlash about the proposed mosque and Islamic community center near ground zero — if you can stand the overwrought emotion. And make no mistake: Opposition to the mosque is all about emotion, not facts. Well, emotion and political opportunism.
A "monument to terror" is being erected on "sacred ground," we are told, and anybody who doesn't recognize this is held to be "out of touch" with the super-sensitive American public.
Indeed, 61 percent of Americans in a recent TIME poll said they opposed plans to build the mosque. And we might reasonably expect that percentage to grow as more people take to the nearest media platform and vent.
What's disconcerting about all this fervent angst is that the arguments against the mosque could be exploded by an average middle-school debater. True — and for this we should be grateful — most people seem to get that the First Amendment protects the right of the Muslims to build their mosque. But, but then follow the "buts." But America's feelings, its sensitivities, ought to trump any principle at stake. But Muslims are different. They're terrorists. How do we know? Because the perpetrator of the Fort Hood massacre, the shoe bomber and the Times Square attacker all were Muslims, as were dozens of other captured plotters besides. This is what passes for logic in this debate.
"Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington," said Newt Gingrich on Fox News. "We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor."
What he says is true enough, and it might even be relevant if the proposed building were to house an institution set up by al-Qaida (which is, to follow his Nazi analogy, the criminal party here). Or is Gingrich implying that there is no difference between Muslims generally and al-Qaida?
How are such baseless and illogical arguments allowed to rise to such a level of public acceptance? My industry deserves a great deal of the blame. Your opinions matter, we in the news media love to tell the public. In journalism land, we call it "taking the pulse," and "getting a read on the public." "Tell us how you feel" preens the cable news host as he offers a Web address to write to, all the better to help America emote.
Skepticism of powerful insiders, insistence upon the facts, taking unpopular stances dictated by principle — calling the public on its ignorance when that's what it needs to hear — that's what some media aren't very good at anymore. It's much safer to solicit your thoughts and echo them than challenge them.
A columnist for Politico — a publication as inside as an insider gets in Washington — this week castigated President Obama for lending "the weight of the presidency" to the argument that First Amendment rights needed to be upheld in this case. For this, the president was called "off message" and "not getting it."
Think about that for a moment. A major publicity campaign is launched (and fanned by leading political luminaries) to pressure a religious group to set aside its constitutional rights, and yet the president ought to keep his opinions to himself about the matter. Think about what such an attitude must say to Muslims, both our fellow citizens and others around the world, about our democracy.
You know what? We should fear homegrown terrorism, including that carried out by homegrown Islamic extremists. But what we should really fear is our inability to distinguish the terrorists from the innocent. And we'll never get there if we simply label everything of Islam as to be feared.