New York City Is Not a Nazi Death Camp

Yesterday, Washington Post op-ed columnist Charles Krauthammer joined in the—well, the word really is “crusade”—against Muslims’ right to live and pray in New York City. The “Ground Zero mosque,” Krauthammer wrote, should be kept out of Lower Manhattan because the site of the Sept. 11 attacks is “sacred” :

When we speak of Ground Zero as hallowed ground, what we mean is that it belongs to those who suffered and died there – and that such ownership obliges us, the living, to preserve the dignity and memory of the place, never allowing it to be forgotten, trivialized or misappropriated. 

The proposal to build an Islamic community center near Ground Zero, Krauthammer writes, is like the building of a “commercial viewing tower” next to the Gettysburg battlefield, or like the construction of a Catholic convent at Auschwitz—both projects that were withdrawn in response to public outcry. The Auschwitz convent is a recurring theme in the campaign against the Islamic center; Newt Gingrich found the analogy impressive enough to post it to Twitter.

The comparison is stupid and abominable, even if you make it in more than 140 characters. Lower Manhattan is not Auschwitz. Also the dispute over the convent at Auschwitz was a complicated one , having to do with a clash between the Poles and the Jews over the understanding of history, made worse by the anti-Semitism and propaganda of the Soviet bloc. But that is beside the point. Lower Manhattan is not Auschwitz.

Auschwitz was a factory complex built for industrialized mass murder. More than a million people were slaughtered there. The gold fillings were melted from their teeth for salvage. People were vivisected, tortured, starved, and gassed. It was a place whose only meaning was deliberate depravity and evil.

If Charles Krauthammer and Newt Gingrich think there is any comparison between what happened at Auschwitz and what happened at Ground Zero, then they are Holocaust deniers. Build 400 sets of Twin Towers, force an entire population into them at gunpoint, and then crash 800 airplanes into them—airplane after airplane, loaded with women and children, with the goal of exterminating their entire race—and you might begin to have something like Auschwitz.

Lower Manhattan is not Auschwitz. Nor is it even Gettysburg, a landscape of farms and fields where a battle was fought. The death camp site is a death camp site; the battlefield is a battlefield. The nuns didn’t go to Auschwitz for the sake of building a convent in an obscure Polish village, and nobody was building observation towers around small Pennsylvania towns in general. The meaning of the sites consists in what happened there.

Lower Manhattan, on the other hand, is a living part of a living city. The Twin Towers were a landmark in their own right. Then, nearly nine years ago, a horrifying thing was done there. The purpose of the terrorist attacks was to bring horror where it was least expected, where people thought they were safe and secure and at peace.

This can’t be forgotten, and it won’t. But the “Ground Zero mosque” opponents are invested in prolonging the horror—in reducing the attack site to what the terrorists wanted it to be: an open wound, an insult, a source of rage. “[T]oo raw, too real,” writes the former governor of Alaska . Real? Krauthammer cites the feckless New York governor’s feckless offer of help in relocating the Islamic center somewhere less controversial. If you think David Paterson’s endorsement makes a policy proposal more serious, you have disqualified yourself from any more discussions about New York. 

Krauthammer’s New York is imaginary. In the real world, New York is rebuilding . The site of the ruined World Trade Center is the site of the new World Trade Center, 20 stories high and rising . Get rid of the Islamic center and the alternative will not be a memorial park, but a fitness center, an American Apparel, a Pinkberry. Dignity makes a lousy standard for downtown zoning. The campaign against the Islamic center is not about preserving the purity of sacred ground. It is about driving Muslims away.