Now that every rational argument against the planned religious-sponsored community center has failed, now that the opponents have conceded that the First Amendment protects minority religious rights, and opponents lost at the local level, we’re given the rights of victims argument.
The country’s political and policy leaders should oppose the planned center out of deference to the feelings of the victims of the September 11th attacks.
This is dangerous, and wrong-headed, and a fundamental misreading of our system, but it’s not new. We’ve been heading in this direction for a long time. I think of it as the “Nancy Grace School” of law and policy.
The September 11th attacks were a crime, or act of war, or both, take your pick, against the people of the United States. If and when OBL or any other perpetrator is every captured, the complaint or indictment will read “United States versus OBL”. If there is victim participation it will be in the form of testimony, or an “impact statement” at sentencing. When we invaded Afghanistan, we invaded as the United States.
This distinction is vitally important, and it’s grounded in the idea that any one of us could have been in that building and, further, that the attack was a violation of our laws and our norms. We can’t lose sight of that. When we respond as a country to events on the basis of sentimentality or closure or healing of the individual stories or wishes of victims, we lose that idea, and we always, always end up with bad law or bad policy or both.
I saw this play out in the Roman Polanski debate, again and again. “But, the victim has forgiven him!” You know what? It doesn’t matter. It was never Victim versus Polanski. Never. It was State of California versus Polanski, because the offense was against all of us, or any of us. That’s harsh, but there it is.
I’ll tell you the flip side of adopting this idea, because there is a flip side. When we ground an analysis in the relative worth, individual character or opinion of the victim, we end up (inevitably and always) at the “innocence” of the victim, because we’re human. This cuts both ways, which is why all crime victims should reject it.
We can (and have) ended up at “she asked for it”, or, “he shouldn’t have been there”, in the criminal system. That’s the flip side of letting this get muddled, and letting it become about the individual victim. It doesn’t end well, and we already know it.
The offense was against the People of the United States, and the People of the United States adopted and follow the First Amendment. Any legal or policy or bully pulpit response from democratically elected leaders starts and ends there. It’s harsh and it’s unsentimental and it can border on cruel, but there’s a reason for it. It won’t work the other way. It never does.
We can (and should, and have) respond to individual victims as individuals. I read the stories just like all of you, and they were heartbreaking. Our national response has to remain grounded not in those individual people, but in the larger idea, or we’ve completely lost our bearings.