Sunday, August 8, 2010

Nonviolence: Lesson #3

Have you heard about the Centennial Park church?

You might remember that in 1996, a terrorist bomb exploded in Centennial Park during the Olympics, killing two people and injuring more than a hundred. Eventually, authorities arrested Eric Robert Rudolph, a sometime-follower of a right-wing Christian identity movement, after he had been found to have bombed several other buildings.

Now, the city of Atlanta is actually allowing a Christian church to be built two blocks away from the site of this terrorist attack by a religious zealot.

Why can't the builders of this church recognize the pain they are causing? Building a church so close to the site of a terrorist attack done in the name of Christianity disrespects the families of those who were killed and injured in that attack. The city government needs to do something to stop this, even if the church is being built on private property.


Actually, all of the above is made up. As far as I know, there isn't a church being built near Centennial Park. In any case, you probably realized that this wasn't on the level, if for no other reason than the idea that a church shouldn't be built because it happened to be close to a site where some whackjob committed a crime inspired by his own twisted religious ideas doesn't make much sense.

And you also probably realize that this is meant as a way of shedding some light on the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" in NYC.

I'll be honest; I hadn't followed this story closely at first. Given the heated nature of the rhetoric, I made the mistake of assuming that the mosque in question was part of the plans for the new construction going up to replace the Twin Towers. Although I thought it would be a cool move to make to steal back Islam from the terrorists by incorporating some sort of small mosque as part of a memorial on the site of Ground Zero, I could understand why people would be upset about it.

Then, I found out that the "Ground Zero" mosque is actually two blocks away from the WTC site and is going to take the place of a run-down building. But a vocal group of people, including the half-governor of Alaska, are not only saying that building the mosque is a bad idea, but actively campaigning to have the New York City government put a stop to it in some way.

In "Non-Violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea," Mark Kurlansky lists 25 lessons that history teaches us about violence and nonviolence. The third one (well, actually it's the eighth on the list, but I'm going a bit out of order as I work through them on this blog) is this: people who go to war start to resemble their enemy.

The example he uses to illustrate this is actually the Muslims of the Middle East. When Christians in Europe began the series of crusades to retake the Holy Land, several Muslim leaders attempted to find ways to reconcile with the Christian presence in their midst. But as time went on, Muslims took a harder and harder line and began demonizing Christians just as Christians demonized Muslims. A much more radical and militant notion of jihad was born. Prominent Muslim clerics preached that there could be no reconciliation with the Godless infidels. Killing them was a holy duty. But as the Muslim leaders preached destruction of the Christian Other, they ironically became exactly like the warring crusaders.

After 9/11, the United States invaded Afghanistan, ostensibly to stop the Taliban. It was this same Taliban who, only a few months earlier, had destroyed ancient statues of Buddha in Afghanistan because they were an affront to their religious beliefs.

Is the parallel between the Taliban destruction of these statues and the protest over the "Ground Zero Mosque" exact? No. But I think there's a disturbing amount of similarity. Rather than embracing religious pluralism, one of the hallmarks of American civic life, the paroxysm of outrage over the building of a mosque in the vicinity of the WTC site bears an uncomfortable family resemblance to exactly the sort of religious intolerance that (among many negative traits) makes the Taliban so loathsome. Those shouting most loudly about their disgust with the mosque speak with the same accent, ideologically, as the zealots aiming artillery at ancient works of art because they represent an "affront" to Islam.

In fact, much of our nation's reaction to the horror of 9/11 has mimicked the sensibilities of those who perpetrated these crimes. From our willingness to engage in mass killing to achieve geo-political goals to engaging in torture of prisoners we hold without trial, we've accepted as valid many of the principles held by the enemy we claim we want to destroy.

At what point do we stop letting ourselves become what we hate? When do we refuse to let those who would harm us define us? Why do we concede to them by becoming like them? Why do we do their work for them, by destroying our identity?

I can think of few better ways of saying "f*** you" to those who supported the 9/11 attacks and who continue to kill Americans than to not only allow but encourage the building of this mosque. Could there be a better, more eloquent statement of what makes America, at her best, an infinitely nobler and better place than the hellish tyranny the Taliban aspires to create in their country?

I can think of few things that would delight the Taliban more than to pay them the high compliment of acting just as they do—of acting, in fact, just as they would like us to do.

We've been doing a wonderful job of following the script that Osama bin Laden surely had in mind when he dreamt up the 9/11 attacks, playing the evil, violent, intolerant aggressor to the hilt. We've become not only the caricature our enemies would like to think we are; we've become much like our enemies themselves.

As Kurlansky teaches us, that was inevitable when we decided to use war to "solve" the problem of criminal terrorism. But it's not inevitable that we continue to become our enemies. We can start by doing what they would never do, being what they can never be: tolerant.


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