A Tradition of Conflict and Controversy at Ground Zero

>The temporary wooden sign was covered in handwritten commentary, but one message stood out more than others. "kill islam!!!" it read in black marker. Two other people had crossed out the words, first with red marker and then with blue pen. But the original thought persisted.

This scene is not from any current controversy over the planned Islamic center and mosque. It's from Ground Zero circa July 2002, ten months after 9/11. Nearly a decade later, the debate appears to remain the same.

There is one notable difference, however: today, people are arguing back as loudly as they're protesting.

Since 2001, I have been regularly on-site at Ground Zero, talking to tourists, speaking to victims' families and downtown residents, attending public hearings, and documenting the numerous battles unfolding here. Today's conflict is the most inflammatory to unfold thus far, but it also indicates progress in our national dialogue.

The current controversy is particularly reminiscent of protests five years ago. In the summer of 2005, the ill-fated International Freedom Center was a museum slated to be built on the site dedicated to exploring past and present international struggles for liberty. Like today's Islamic Center, it had gone through the required logistical hoops and had a nascent mission. But then, in June, a sister of one of the pilots killed at the Pentagon wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal deploring the use of the site for a museum dedicated to historical events other than 9/11. "Ground Zero has been stolen, right from under our noses," she wrote. "How do we get it back?"

Within days, the controversy lit up the electronic waves. A group of victims' family members started a movement, "Take Back the Memorial." It quickly drew national attention, particularly from conservative bloggers. Protestors congregated at Ground Zero. Their signs read "9/11 not 'world history,'" and "America, they're highjacking your memorial."

The museum's supporters, who also included victims' family members, wrote their own op-eds. They argued that the museum would place 9/11 in an historical context and celebrate the freedoms that were attacked that day. "If what we remember is pain and fear, we're bowing to terror," one supporter wrote in a letter to the New York Times. "If what we remember is to hold our heads higher ... and fight harder for our ideals, then we're showing the world that terror can scratch the surface of New York City but can't touch its heart."

Another narrative was more powerful, though. More and more, families of victims and interested citizens agreed that the museum brought too much controversy to a place that shouldn't be political. Many who said they supported the Freedom Center's mission in theory didn't want it on sacred ground. "There are many venues for education and freedom of expression, but there is only one Ground Zero," one wrote in a letter to the Times. "Above all, [Ground Zero] must be a place that brings us together as Americans," another wrote. "It is therefore a singularly inappropriate site for divisive, politicized exhibits."

Build it somewhere else, a few blocks away, they said, but not on these sixteen acres.

The rhetoric today is nearly identical -- if angrier, louder, and more extreme. In part, this is because it is directly about Islam. But the debate is also freer, richer, and more sustained. Five years ago, the discussion was dominated by one point of view, and it came to an abrupt end. A couple of months after the controversy broke, then-New York Senator Hilary Clinton voiced concerns about the appropriateness of the museum, one of the first on the political left to do so. A few days later, Governor George Pataki officially barred the museum from the site. No one in political office dared make the kinds of impassioned speeches that Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama have offered today in support of the center.

Rather than be shut down, the current controversy has escalated -- and is no longer only about the planned center and mosque -- because supporters have created space for their arguments. It has also escalated because those in-charge -- in this case, the city of New York -- have not swooped in to kill the project despite the public outcry. And Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Imam who conceived of the center, reiterated his commitment to going forward with the center two blocks from the WTC site.

Debate over these plans will surely continue. The Muslim center taps into uncertainties about terrorism and what 9/11 means -- uncertainties that few were willing to engage till now. For better or worse, provocative, media-ready controversies have offered the only opportunities for the country to have a broader exchange about the attacks. For the first time in nine years, space is beginning to open up for a public dialogue about that day and its aftermath.