If ever we needed proof that spiritual yearning is universal, and not limited to religious people, just notice how reverently we all speak about Ground Zero, the site of the 9/11 terrorist atrocity in lower Manhattan. Regardless of background, that piece of real estate is holy ground.
Judging by the public response to a proposal for an Islamic center to be located a few blocks from the site of the terrorist attack, the entire neighborhood is understood to be holy ground. The public response to the proposal is complex and emotionally charged. What belongs on holy ground? Who belongs on holy ground? Commerce is apparently ok. Taxicabs and pizza delivery trucks are ok. Worship is very much ok, unless….. Here we begin to get in touch with a deep and difficult shared anxiety. People who have a principled tolerance for religious freedom and diversity, as a defining part of our American identity since colonial times, sometimes get anxious when thinking about any Islamic presence, anywhere near that place. Some say that the proposal is insensitive, because the terrorists professed a hateful, insular form of Islam.
If we ever needed proof that anxiety flies below the radar of our thinking brains, here it is. Anxiety can take the form of fear for one’s personal safety; but those who are uneasy about the Islamic center don’t sound particularly scared that a cultural center in the spotlight of public scrutiny and tourism, might be a place where terror plots are hatched. Anxiety is sometimes about risk of losing something precious; is there a worry that visitors to the Islamic center might diminish the sacredness of that darkly holy site down the block? Hard to see how that is possible. Yet the unease is unmistakeable.
On sacred ground, we are in touch with our vulnerability. There is a reasonable impulse to caution: with whom do we share it? If only there were a reliable way to know who deserves our trust. In the absence of a good method, we have the time honored practice of screening out people too superficially different to be one of us, so that we can have the illusion of safety. The bitter irony has always been that it doesn’t work very well; malice doesn’t have an ethnicity or a religion. The effective response to our anxiety is not to minimize it, or to put it in charge of our city planning or our life planning, but to create an oasis, a sanctuary in the midst of the emotional high wire act of our life among strangers. We are all birds on a wire.