In America it seems there's no problem, no matter how complex or intractable, that can't be solved by a braying lynch mob. It's as familiar as apple pie, if not quite as reassuring.
Take the controversy over the proposed Islamic cultural center at Ground Zero. Critics of the plan have been saber rattling for weeks now: 'Building a 15-story mosque at Ground Zero is a deliberately provocative act that will precipitate more bloodshed in the name of Allah,' wrote Debra Burlingame, co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America.
Burlingame believes that the real plan is for triumphalist Muslims to rub our noses in it. How she knows this she omits to say. It's safe to assume she hasn't noticed how provocative her own words are. In fact Burlingame believes we're witnessing a clash of civilizations.
'What just happened is like spraying swastikas all over a Jewish memorial,' said Andy Sullivan, a construction worker at Ground Zero during 9/11. Well no in fact it isn't, Andy, and it's quite important to point that out.
First of all, it isn't a mosque, it's an Islamic cultural center which, although it would include a mosque for prayer, would be 15 stories tall with a swimming pool, an auditorium and other amenities that make it more like a YMCA than an militant Madrasah.
Sullivan has fallen for the same knee-jerk depiction of Islam as a single monolithic form of faith, inherently violent and extreme, and of all Muslims as incapable of being moderate. At times it seems the objections to this center are largely driven by the same nativist sentiments we hear about in the Tea Party.
'George Bush made every attempt to reach out,' said Congressman Peter King, a leading critic of the mosque project. 'The Muslim community did not reciprocate, did not respond.'
So how, amidst all this rage, will religious tolerance make an appeal? Mob rule, however well intentioned or passionate, shouldn't trump the American constitution or the bill of rights - simply because we're dealing with an unfavored minority. Either we are who we say we are or we are not. Difficult choices like this give us the chance to really be who we say we are.
This proposed Islamic center is planned as a center for moderate voices. We should be strongly encouraging them to speak up, not sending them packing to triumphalist applause. In New York, in any case, these people are our friends and neighbors, they are not shadowy militant cells who no one knows and who know no one, plotting our or anyone's demise.
Despite what some critics are hatefully claiming, this Islamic center wasn't planned as an insult to the memory of 9/11; the people who run it are not the Taliban. It will be located over two city blocks from the 9/11 site. There already is a major and historical Christian church located within blocks of the ground zero and no one is calling for its dismantling, as yet.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had it right when he praised the president, calling the comments a clarion defense of the freedom of religion. 'This proposed mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan is as important a test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime,' Bloomberg said in a statement.
Al Qaeda, not Islam, attacked New York on 9/11. In fact al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion. But this is the kind of complicating detail that lynch mobs hate, which is why it bears repeating.
'This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable
,' said President Barack Obama on Friday. 'The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are. The writ of our Founders must endure.'
That commitment must be absolute, or it's meaningless. Like George W Bush before him
, the president has taken a measured and clear thinking line on Islam as a religion of peace. Bush was not pilloried for it by the pundits, neither should Obama be.
UPDATE: As Josh Marshall noted today in Talking Points Memo
: 'We're in a midst of a spasm of nativist panic and raw and raucous appeals to race and religious hatred. What effects this will have on the November election strikes me as not particularly relevant. What's important is compiling some record of what's afoot, some catalog for understanding in the future who was responsible and who was so willing to disgrace their country and their principles for cheap advantage.'