From Pearl Harbor, an Answer to 'Hallowed Ground' Crowd
by David Benjamin
Many thought-provoking parallels have percolated from the wingnuts who oppose the establishment of an Islamic community center and swimming pool on “hallowed ground” in lower Manhattan two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center (and just around the corner from the New York Dolls Gentlemen’s Club, Thunder Lingerie, the Pussycat Lounge, 11 bars, 17 pizzerias and 18 banks crawling with what the New Testament calls “moneychangers”).
Newt Gingrich has compared this proposal, by an American citizen, Feisal Abdul Rauf, and his wife Daisy, to draping a Nazi flag over the Holocaust Museum, or putting up a snack bar at the Gettysburg battlefield (although, besides those 17 pizza joints, Ground Zero also has a McDonald’s and a Burger King).
But the analogy that rang my chord came from Charles Krauthammer, the Washington Post’s Bill Buckley disciple, who wrote that “the people of Japan today would not think of planting their flag at Pearl Harbor, despite the fact that no Japanese under the age of 85 has any possible responsibility for that infamy…”
Krauthammer measures this likelihood accurately, but I think such timidity over Pearl Harbor among the Japanese is unfortunate. More Japanese should visit Pearl, and they should have a place there — not to hang flags — but to make amends.
I think this because when I visited the Pearl Harbor memorial, I was accompanied — besides my wife, Junko — by my Japanese in-laws, Takaaki and Kiyoko (and Kiyoko’s infinitely amusing sister Yaeko).
The Pearl Harbor tour includes film footage of the Pearl Harbor attack, along with a multilingual narrative that describes the carnage wrought by this peacetime surprise. After the film, the tour proceeds to the USS Arizona memorial, where 1,177 U.S. sailors remain entombed. They were trapped below decks when, 11 minutes into the attack, a Japanese bomb penetrated the Arizona’s ammunition magazine, triggering an explosion that resounded miles away and sank the battleship almost instantly.
As we stood overlooking the rusted hull of the Arizona, Kiyoko began — for the third or fourth time — to weep. She said to Junko, “I had no idea.”
In Japan, the story of Pearl Harbor, perhaps understandably, avoids terms like “sneak attack.” It emphasizes the colossal might of the U.S. force defeated at Pearl (by the spunky little island-nation of Japan), and — as Kiyoko explained — never mentions the numbers of young Americans who were killed and wounded before they had a chance to shoot back, or lay hands on a weapon, or even get out of bed. Most Japanese who visit Pearl Harbor “had no idea.” Many, like Kiyoko, shed tears of shock and remorse.
It’s not as though Junko’s mom, who’s now 83, has no experience with the horrors of war. On 7 August 1945, she was a Hiroshima schoolgirl required by the Empire to work in an aircraft factory on the city’s outskirts. After the atom bomb hit and panic swept Hiroshima, Kiyoko — unaware that any danger that might be contained in the rain of ash that fell steadily from the searing sky — did what came naturally. She walked “home” from the factory to her school dormitory, which was located a block or so from the smoldering moonscape that later came to be known as “Ground Zero.”
On that journey, of which Kiyoko rarely speaks — and when she does, simply calls it a “walk through Hell” — she passed hundreds of people blinded by the bomb, naked and staggering, their roasted flesh hanging in ribbons from their bodies and flapping in the hot wind. She passed fountains strewn with corpses where people, blackened by nuclear heat and desperate for water, had taken one drink and died of shock. She saw victims cut to shreds by flying glass, and she saw hundreds of bodies floating in the Ota River, where people had leapt for safety and boiled to death. When she returned to her dorm, all she found of her roomies were ashes and bits of bone.
And yet — having seen worse — Kiyoko wept over Pearl Harbor. She summoned no face-saving comparisons. She wept because she understood that the young men at Pearl, at leisure on a Sunday morning in Paradise, were as innocent as the thousands in Hiroshima who, 1,340 days later, served as atomic guinea pigs for the bomb whose makers called it “Little Boy.” Kiyoko wept because she understood the fateful bond between two moments and two bombs. Above all, she wept for the American families shattered, a half-century before, by the sudden, unjust loss of so many children who had carried their love and their aspirations. She wept a mother’s tears.
Like many Japanese, Kiyoko has had a number of faiths in her life, including, recently, Christianity. But that day, at Pearl Harbor, she would have welcomed a particular, familiar sort of refuge for her feelings.
Throughout Japan, in the heart of the city and deep in the countryside, there are small, unobtrusive Shinto shrines, some barely larger than a FotoMat booth. Recalling Kiyoko’s unconsoled grief for the long-lost sailors of the USS Arizona, it strikes me that one of those little shrines — perhaps just outside the visitor center — belongs there at Pearl Harbor. I can’t imagine that any American, even Gingrich or Krauthammer, would object to this shrine once they saw, kneeling there, a tiny old Japanese lady crying quietly and praying not only for the souls of the young men lost on that day of infamy, but also for her own nation’s atonement. A mother’s tears, no matter her religion, violate no one’s “hallowed ground.”
The absence of that little shrine at Pearl Harbor is not consecration by omission. It’s simply a deficit of grace, a failure to heal. Why fail again?
Why not, instead, offer Muslims a place — small, familiar and holy — right at New York’s Ground Zero (not two blocks away in a derelict Burlington Coat Factory), where they might seek solace for the feelings that rise from the great crime committed in the name of their faith? Like Kiyoko at Pearl Harbor, they wouldn’t come to gloat or wave flags. Like everyone else, they would be there to pray, to regret, to atone, to share in mourning the ruin of so many unfinished lives.
David Benjamin is a novelist and journalist. He now divides his time between New York and Paris. His latest book, recently released by Tuttle Publishing, is SUMO: A Thinking Fan's Guide to Japan's National Sport.
|Chronicle of a Hate Crime Foretold: Muslim-Bashing Has Consequences |
The inevitable finally occurred Tuesday evening: An American Muslim taxi driver was violently attacked and nearly killed by a fellow New Yorker who was influenced by the hateful rhetoric and vicious propaganda that has flourished recently. Ahmed Sharif, who was born in Bangladesh and has lived in the United States for twenty-five years, picked up 21-year-old Michael Enright, who, after a few innocuous comments, established that his driver was Muslim and began taunting his religion.
"As the cab inched up Third Avenue and reached 39th Street [in Manhattan], Mr. Sharif said in a phone interview, Mr. Enright suddenly began cursing at him and shouting ‘This is the checkpoint' and ‘I have to bring you down'," the New York Times reported. "‘He was talking like he was a soldier,' Mr. Sharif said. He withdrew a Leatherman knife, Mr. Sharif said, and, reaching through the opening in the plastic divider, slashed Mr. Sharif's throat. When Mr. Sharif turned, he said, Mr. Enright stabbed him in his face, on his arm and on his thumbs. Mr. Sharif said he told him: ‘I beg of you, don't kill me. I worked so hard, I have a family'."
Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and Fox News bear considerable responsibility for this attack and for any other hate crimes committed against Muslims in the immediate future. If you continuously shout that "Islam equals Nazism" and "all Muslims are responsible for 9/11," which has been the explicit message of the leaders of the campaign against the Park51 community center, someone like Mr. Enright will eventually translate your rhetoric into action.
While Gingrich and Fox lead the charge, lesser-known local politicians are conveying the anti-Islam message to their communities. Allen West, who is running for Congress in Broward County, Florida, "told a group of supporters that ‘Islam is not a religion' but rather ‘a vicious enemy' that was "infiltrating" the United States." Elsewhere in Florida--not far from the site of a planned Quran-burning on September 11--Congressional candidate Ron McNeil "told a group of high school and middle school students last week that Islam's plan ‘is to destroy our way of life'."
The recent controversy over the Manhattan community center has brought to the surface and intensified our society's deep-seated bigotry toward Muslims. A few myths and facts about the Park51 Community Center, also known as the Cordoba House or, inaccurately, as the "ground zero mosque":
Myths 1 and 2 are captured in the label "ground zero mosque." The proposed building is not a mosque. "The Community Center will feature recreational programs and services for all community members regardless of religious affiliation or faith," explained the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in an August 23 statement. It will be, "in fact, an interfaith Center." And it is located two long city blocks (roughly the length of two football fields) from the former WTC, and is not even visible from the site of the 9/11 attacks. As Clyde Haberman wrote in the New York Times this week, only exaggerating slightly for comic effect, "Two blocks is equivalent to several miles in other cities or in the suburbs. Your dry cleaner moves two blocks, and it's so long, pal. He'll never see you again. He might as well have relocated to Yonkers."
The presence, another block away, of the "New York Dolls Gentleman's Club"--which I suppose should be called "The Ground Zero Strip Club," if we're going to persist in calling Park51 the "ground zero mosque"--hardly upholds the sacredness of the site, but has provoked no hysteria.
These facts have been widely reported over the last week or so, yet this controversy is still described as the "ground zero mosque" issue in the news media, even by supporters of Park51's constitutional rights.
Myth #3: "Muslims have not condemned the attacks": This is quite false. "American Muslims utterly condemn" the "vicious and cowardly acts," declared the Islamic Society of North America a few hours after the attacks. "No political cause could ever be justified by such immoral acts." This was among the first of a long list of condemnations issued by Muslim organizations and individuals. The Council on American Islamic Relations has compiled a 68-page collection of Muslim repudiations of terrorism.
Myth #4: "Cordoba House," which Park51 was officially called until very recently, invokes the memory of "Muslim conquerors, who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world's third-largest mosque," announced Newt Gingrich. Dr. Gingrich has a doctorate in History, and should know better. Córdoba is seen by most knowledgeable people as a symbol not of Muslim conquest and triumphalism, but of the relative tolerance, inter-religious harmony, and profound cultural achievements of Islamic Spain. As Carl Pyrdum wrote in an astute commentary for the History News Network, the Córdoba mosque (or Mezquita), a marvelous and inspiring work of architecture, "far from ‘symboliz[ing] their victory' ... was held up by Muslim historians a symbol of peaceful coexistence with the Christians." It was Christian conquerors in the 13th century, not the earlier Umayyad dynasty, who appropriated the building "in an aggressive erasure of history and statement of faith," as Edward Said noted.
Myth #5: The big, unstated myth that underlies the hysteria: "Muslims are collectively guilty for 9/11, and Islam is a violent, un-American religion." Some commentators, such as Mark Williams, until recently a prominent Tea Party leader, are explicit in their bigotry (Williams stated that the Cordoba House would be a "temple to terrorists" where Muslims would "worship their monkey god"). Others are more subtle, but there is no escaping the implication, in all this hysteria over Park51, that all Muslims are responsible for 9/11. Why else would an Islamic center (in reality, a multi-faith center run by Muslims) provoke such a furor? The fact is that twenty Islamist zealots, with the assistance of a few others, were responsible for September 11. The rest of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims, and the Islamic faith itself, had nothing to do with it.
Citizens of the United States have congratulated themselves far too much for transcending racism. The election of President Obama, for example, was seized upon by many over-optimistic (or, in some cases, cynical and calculating) people as proof that we now live in a "post-racial" society. Thanks to the courageous efforts of civil-rights campaigners and activists of previous generations, this society did indeed become a more civilized place over the last fifty years. But the cancer of racism and ethnic bigotry--this country's original sin--never vanished, and over the last two years we have slid dangerously backward. Bigotry against Muslims, and also against African Americans and Latinos, can now be expressed more openly and loudly than in many years.Professor Gingrich, Glenn Beck, and Bill O'Reilly--who are only the most persistent within the deafening chorus of anti-Muslim hate speech--owe an answer to Talat Hamdani, whose son was one of several dozen Muslims killed in 9/11. "Why are we paying the price? Why are we being ostracized?" asked Hamdani of an Associated Press reporter. "America was founded on the grounds of religious freedom," and opposition to the cultural center "is un-American. It's unethical. And it is wrong."