Turning Hallowed Ground into Common Ground

We all view them differently. So how can we best turn hallowed ground into common ground?

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Illustration by Gerard Dubois for TIME

As the fight over what is now known as the Ground Zero mosque erupted, I was in Chautauqua, N.Y., a lakeside colony founded by Methodist ministers that Teddy Roosevelt once called "typical of America at its best." The theme for the week was Sacred Spaces, and roughly 4,000 people turned out to hear filmmaker Ken Burns give a lecture about the Brooklyn Bridge and Ebbets Field, V├ęzelay and Jerusalem: "What makes sacred space is the overlay of experience," he said, whether the experience is of war or wonder or revelation. So Gettysburg is hallowed ground, as is the Grand Canyon and Lourdes and, since 9/11, New York City's financial district, where the debate over the proposed Islamic center has put multiple values in conflict: tolerance, sensitivity, pluralism and patriotism, principles that we value too highly to have to choose among them.

Two years ago, our family buried my husband's father at Arlington National Cemetery — buried him, that is, in the graveyard established in Robert E. Lee's rose garden, where Brigadier General Montgomery Meigs ordered construction of a burial vault for the remains of 1,800 soldiers who had died at Bull Run. Union officers were interred practically up to the mansion doors; Meigs was determined to make Lee's house uninhabitable. But "they cannot take away the remembrance of the spot," Lee told his wife, who had moved out when the war began, "and the memories of those that to us rendered it sacred."

Thus some of the most hallowed ground in America was born out of civil war and in a spirit of vengeance. But nearly 150 years of farewells and funerals for soldiers — from all parts of the country — give it a spirit of timeless grace. That spirit is almost always hard-earned. Near Arlington, of course, is Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which, when it opened in 1982, architects praised for its quiet dignity and opponents saw as a "black gash of shame" that insulted the memory of the 58,267 people whose names are etched on it. The fight over Lin's wall became a replay in miniature of the battle over the war itself, a dispute over the very nature of heroism. To appease critics, a statue of three soldiers and a 50-ft. (15 m) flagpole were added to the site. The wall eventually became one of the most visited memorials in Washington.

Through each case there runs a test: How do we attach meaning to spaces, and what happens when attachments collide or interpretations conflict or change over time? In lower Manhattan, one protester carries a sign: "Don't glorify murders of 3,000; no 9/11 victory mosque." Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League opposes the project because he says it would cause victims' families more pain. "Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted," he says.

If some see the building as a tribute to terrorists, of course they are enraged. But what of those who see it as a muscular assertion of the very values the terrorists loathe? Is the fight really over whether the victims' memory should be honored — or over what forms the homage takes? "We would betray our values if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. "To cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists, and we should not stand for that."

So when is it caving, and when is it searching for common ground? "We create sacred space because we yearn for community," Burns said, but sometimes the creation of the space divides the community. Each side even contradicts its own case. Asked what distance from Ground Zero would be a sufficient buffer, opponents answered anywhere from several blocks to several time zones, but if the center really were an intentional affront orchestrated by radical Islamist sleepers, how could any distance suffice? On the other hand, mosque proponents base their support on the "moderate," "bridge building" message of the project founders. But by what right does a city approve or reject religious institutions because of the flavor of their belief? And if the organizers aim to unite people of different faiths, why do it in so divisive a location?

Sacred spaces invoke the absolute and the divine: they will never be the same to all people, and so their management demands particular humility. Questions of law and land use and building permits do not lend themselves to arguments over the "irrational" or inexplicable. Politicians who exploit these debates for their own purposes deserve special scorn. It is not just these spaces that are worthy of special respect; so is the way we engage one another over their fate.