Sensitive Bigotry and the “Ground Zero Mosque” Meme

CNN's Don Lemon inadvertently reveals the prejudice lurking behind objections to a Muslim cultural center near the World Trade Center site.

By Michelle Chen Aug 18, 2010

The other day, CNN anchor Don Lemon mapped out the line that divides Muslim Americans from the rest of their country. And most viewers around the country probably didn’t blink. Here’s a snatch of the conversation, a tense exchange between Lemon and guest Eboo Patel, executive director of the Interfaith Youth Corps (h/t Glenn Greenwald):

Lemon: Don’t you think it’s a bit different considering what happened on 9/11? And the people have said there’s a need for it in Lower Manhattan, so that’s why it’s being built there. What about 10, 20 blocks . . . Midtown Manhattan, considering the circumstances behind this? That’s not understandable?

Patel: In America, we don’t tell people based on their race or religion or ethnicity that they are free in this place, but not in that place —

Lemon:  [interrupting] I understand that, but there’s always context, Mr. Patel . . . this is an extraordinary circumstance. You understand that this is very heated. Many people lost their loved ones on 9/11 —

Patel: Including Muslim Americans who lost their loved ones…   

Lemon:  Consider the context here. That’s what I’m talking about. 

Patel:  I have to tell you that this seems a little like telling black people 50 years ago: you can sit anywhere on the bus you like — just not in the front.

Lemon:  I think that’s apples and oranges — I don’t think that black people were behind a Terrorist plot to kill people and drive planes into a building. That’s a completely different circumstance.

Patel:  And American Muslims were not behind the terrorist plot either.

Consider the context. Apples and oranges. Separate but equal. In response to Lemon’s questions about why the Muslim community doesn’t show sensitivity by offering to site the center, say, 20 blocks away, Patel goes on to say, "In America, we don’t tell people based on their race or ethnicity or religion, that they are free in this place but not that place. That they are free here but not there."

If you define "sensitivity" the way many opponents of the Islamic cultural center do, then survivors of the 9/11 tragedy, and anyone claiming to speak for them, are automatically granted virtually unlimited license to override constitutional principles. The same sensitivity must have been the chief concern of the White House (the current one and its predecessor) when attempting to censor potential evidence of torture or disturbing images of wounded soldiers.

Perhaps the same sensitivity was at work in South Boston back in the 1970s, when citizens, otherwise law-abiding, decent folk, convulsed with rage at the thought of their sons and daughters sitting next to black children bused into their local school. A more recent lesson in sensitivity might be the supposed discomfort that service members may feel if they discovered some of their fellow soldiers were gay–which turns out to be a convenient argument for continuing the silence imposed by Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

The possibilities are endless when reactionaries wrap their rhetoric in blameless sensitivities. It’s always ascribed to some nebulous public consensus of intolerance, which dictates, facelessly and anonymously, that one group of people can be free anywhere except for next door to us.