Sensitivities Don't Override the Constitution

A response to Charles Krauthammer.

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Although Charles Krauthammer and I disagree about nearly everything, I still respect his thinking and, in fact, fear his powers of logic. I hope we are still friends, although we disagree sharply about the Ground Zero mosque, which is turning into something of a defining issue. Charles wrote a column about it two weeks ago, then I wrote about it (partly taking issue with him) and he responded last week. Now it's my turn again. I start with a clarification. When I wrote that the two most obvious explanations for opposition to the mosque were bigotry and political opportunism. I should have made clear that I don't think Charles is a bigot.

One of Charles's analogies, intended to challenge people who support the mosque on principle, is the nuns who opened a convent to pray for the innocent dead at Auschwitz. After widespread protest, Pope John Paul II shut it down. Charles says that in discussing this analogy, Kinsley "doesn’t even feign anlysis," and that's true. I said, and repeat, that "I never did understand" the objection or the Pope's decision. Charles's response is: how dare I challenge "one of the towering moral figures of the 20th century"? He does not feign analysis either. Apparently any decision by Pope John Paul II is, shall we say, infallible. Two Jews probably shouldn't argue in public about Catholic doctrine, but what about birth control? Women priests? Celibacy? Few Catholics would agree with Charles that any decision by the previous Pope is beyond dissent.

And just to be clear: when I said that I "never did understand what was wrong with nuns...praying at Auschwitz," I was not saying that the issues involved were beyond my comprehension. I was saying, nicely, that I thought the Pope got it wrong. If there was a Nazi death camp in the United States, and some nuns wanted to build a convent nearby, they would have a First Amendment right to do so.

In his original column, Charles gave other analogies: What if the Japanese wanted to build a cultural center at Pearl Harbor? What about a theme park near a civil war battlefield (Disney once planned one and changed its mind after protests) or an observation tower at Gettysburg (which was built and then dismantled). I said the difference is that none of these examples involves violating the principles of the First Amendment. Telling Muslims that they can't have a house of worship on a site where Jews or Christians clearly could violates the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion. Charles concedes, as they almost all do (there is little choice) that for the government to forbid this mosque would be unconstitutional. He wants the planners voluntarily to accept another site.

Constitutional rights are not requirements. We do not all have to carry guns just because the Second Amendment says we are allowed to. Just as we all have the right to build a mosque near Ground Zero, we also all have the right not to build one. We even have a First Amendment right to attempt to persuade other people to give up the exercise of some constitutional right.

Imam Rauf and his followers, however, are not likely to be persuaded by the argument that, even though they had no connection whatever to the events of 9/11, their very presence near Ground Zero is upsetting to the sensitivities of 9/11 survivors and families. It is like telling blacks or Jews that they have every right to move into the neighborhood, but wouldn't they really be happier in some other neighborhood, not too far away, where the neighbors' sensistivities won't be offended? And--as Charles mentioned in both columns and obviously feels is important--the governor will even help you find one. That's how badly people don't want you around.

No offense.

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