Sarah Palin’s latest inane statement, “Legitimate Questions for the President,” may be inane, but it demonstrates quite nicely how those on the left lost the rhetorical battle concerning what she calls “this Ground Zero mosque.” As Eric Rauchway pointed out, Manhattan Island is a small place—only about 13 miles long and 2.3 wide—that looms larger in our collective imagination because of its social and cultural importance. If you asked Palin or any of the others who have temporarily abandoned their disdain for all things East Coast and elitist whether it would be acceptable if someone built a mosque within a 1.5 mile radius of where the Twin Towers once stood, they would likely continue protesting because they are utterly ignorant of the fact that that roughly eliminates everything south of NYU.*
To their minds, New York City is less of a teeming than an endless metropolis, one that begins on the southern tip of the island and extends beyond the horizons to the north and east and west. They fail to recognize that there was a reason New Yorkers stopped building out and started building up—there is only so much room on an island 22 square miles in area—and so they assume that renovating a Men’s Wearhouse into a community center must, perforce, be an insult to the memories of the victims of 9/11. Their reaction to learning that the mosque being built on Ground Zero is actually a community center being built two blocks away is a stubborn spectacle couched in deliberately deceptive language.
Palin’s rhetorical transformation of “the mosque being built on Ground Zero” into “this Ground Zero mosque” would be brilliant if intentional. It draws a scar across an infinite island and declares everything to its south to be sacred American soil. The area she calls “Ground Zero” is a fictional place in whose name she and her ideological brethren can express their xenophobia without fear of being called xenophobic. She and they can claim to support the good Muslims—the ones who know that their place, literally, is not in lower Manhattan—safe in the knowledge that, with a wink, their fear of people with strange names from foreign lands can arguably be something other than it is. In her mind and theirs, “this Ground Zero mosque” is less of a building than a psychological representation of the controversy caused by their ignorance of the island’s geography, i.e. they have retooled their own stupidity into a potent rhetorical feint whose truth is undeniable because it refers to the debate about an imaginary building on an infinitely large island. For Palin and those like her, the “Ground Zero” in “this Ground Zero mosque” functions not as a reference to the former site of the Twin Towers, but as a simple adjective that identifies the particular “mosque” in question.
That it happens not to be located on Ground Zero is, at this point in the conversation, irrelevant.
Palin proves this by obfuscation. Her concern about “this Ground Zero mosque” is not that it will be located on Ground Zero, but “steps away from” it. Twice in her short post she uses the phrase “steps away from” to describe the distance of “this Ground Zero mosque” from Ground Zero. Part of me wants to chide her with a simple reminder that, despite being in Southern California, I am “steps away from” her front door in Wasilla, Alaska. Granted, I’m many millions of steps away from it, but steps away nonetheless. Another part, however, wants to ask her to define her terms. How many “steps away from” something she considers “hallowed ground” must American citizens of Islamic faith be required to take before they can enjoy their constitutionally guaranteed right to religious freedom? How many “steps away from” must they be before they can exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to assemble freely?
I have a feeling that waiting for specific answers will be a fruitless waste.
*I write “roughly” because superimposing a circle on a grid and describing the results hurts my head.