During the heyday of the furor over the Ground-Zero Mosque, I had an interesting discussion with a friend of mine. He argued that the Muslim cleric and his cohorts had a right to build the mosque there, I argued against. I have since come around to reluctantly support his view, but with a few pointed caveats.
Let’s begin with our original argument: I argued against the mosque on the basis of cruelty and respect for the dead. Essentially, I argued that the ones most affected by constructing the mosque were the survivors of the fallen, not the general populace of the city. Whereas it is an insult and slap in the face to the population of New York City (and the U.S. in general), it is a knife in the heart to those who lost loved ones; indeed, it is an act of heartless cruelty to propose, let alone build such a mosque. I argued that in this case respect for the dead should trump freedom of religion, if for no other reason than that it is emotionally cruel to let the project proceed. He argued that, yes, it is a crappy thing to do, but we’d lose more by preventing it than by letting it proceed. After careful consideration, I reluctantly concede his point. But there are serious consequences that need to be pointed out.
If one is not allowed the concept of “emotional cruelty” or “respect for the dead” as legal arguments to prevent something from being built, or done, many things which would strike most people as beyond the pale become legal. The examples that my friend and I discussed included the following (both hypothetical): 1) suppose the church of which Timothy McVeigh was a member wished to build a church on the site of the Oklahoma City bombing, should it be allowed to do so? Unfortunately, I am forced to say yes. 2) suppose a Christian group wanted to build a shrine to the Blessed Virgin at the location where an abortion clinic bomber struck, should they be allowed? Again, the unfortunate answer is yes. If they own the property, then, legally they should be permitted to do whatever they wish.
That said, there is no reason why one cannot protest the above listed actions (including the mosque, of course) as loudly and as vehemently as one desires-not to legally ban the activity, but to publicly express your disgust at the proposed action and denounce it. If many people join you in your efforts, perhaps the offending group will change their mind. In the case of the mosque, the protest groups in NYC were perfectly in their rights to protest and point out the poor choiceof location for the mosque, even though the Muslim cleric was in his rights as well. Legally, he could have built there, protests not withstanding; but that would have invited more perfectly legal protests and he wisely changed his mind. The lesson here is that protests need not be directed only at actions one wishes to ban. One is perfectly within one’s rights to protest a legal action without intending to change the laws or make an action illegal.
In the end, I believe there should be recognition of a new category of action: legal, but stupid (or perhaps, legal, but cruel). The examples cited above (the mosque and hypothetical situations 1 and 2) fall into this category, as I’m sure many other activities do. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the citizenry to step up and protest when they see something so egregious. And in that regard, the citizens of NYC acquitted themselves quite well.