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A country ruled and guided by fair and just laws is one essential piece of the foundation of a civilized society. By such criteria alone, the developers of the Cordoba House Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero have every right to build it there.

But a legal right is not the only criterion by which Americans or any civilized society should be guided in this or any similar instance. A society is built not only upon laws, but upon customs, morals, and principles of fairness. It may also be guided by religious sentiments when those sentiments are widely held in a particular community. The law is (or should be) only the last resort in many civil questions—not the only reason given.

Therefore, such a society should be run and governed by sane and fair leaders who have the sensitivity and perspective to realize when the sensibilities of too many citizens or community members are being violated by a particular circumstance.

What is a sensibility? A “keen consciousness or appreciation,” a “capacity for intellectual and aesthetic distinctions, feelings, tastes, etc.” A civilization, in case anyone has forgotten, is made up of free people, men and women, who attain to higher knowledge, understanding, culture, and civil relations with one another.

I will restate what everyone knows, to make clear which sensibilities I am talking about here. On September 11, 2001, lower Manhattan and New York City as a whole bore the brunt of a devastating attack upon the country. Nearly 3000 people of all nationalities, races and religions—a representative microcosm of the population of the entire country—were murdered as they began their workday. Most residents of the city and surrounding states—New Jersey, Connecticut—knew one or more people who perished in the World Trade Center towers.

The bodies of the casualties were largely pulverized into ash during the collapse of the Towers. The website “911research.wtc7.net” provides stark fatality statistics of the attack (as of three years later; my apologies in advance if these figures have since been updated):

“The number of people believed to have been killed in the World Trade Center attack hovers around 2,780. . . . No trace has been identified for about half the victims, despite the use of advanced DNA techniques to identify individuals. . . . Of the 1,401 people identified, 673 of the IDs were based on DNA alone. Only 293 intact bodies were found. Only twelve could be identified by sight.” (emphasis added)

All except 293 casualties’ bodies were pulverized and dispersed across the site and all of lower Manhattan, as anyone who was there and saw the clouds of smoke rising from the site for weeks can attest. Of those casualties for whom partial remains were identified, the rest of their remains will never be found or identified. For this and other profound reasons, many of the 911 families and the residents of New York City regard the entire Trade Center site as “hallowed ground.”

Whatever else it may be or become, it remains the place where so many died, as well as the burial site for most of the victims. It is and should be engraved permanently in the hearts, minds, and memories making up the soul of the city and of the country. The United States was grievously attacked by terrorists acting out of a brutal and barbaric ideology.

Why, then, should Imam Faisal Rauf come to his own considered decision to refrain from erecting a huge community center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero, even when he has the legal right to do so—even assuming just for the sake of argument that Cordoba House is intended to simply be a community center and prayer room, not a monument to radical Islam’s “triumph” over the West?

Because a religious leader who truly cared for the community he sought to join, would realize, without having to have it explained to him, that in seeking to erect such a structure there, he treads upon the hearts and souls of millions of people who haven’t and never will forget the insult to them and to this country perpetrated but two short blocks away. To ignore the sensibilities of New York residents and many of the 911 families and instead claim only the legal right to build seems to testify to someone acting out of an unpraiseworthy motive.

And a mayor who truly cared for the community he purports to lead, would be sensitive to these feelings and sensibilities and honor the memory of those killed in his city by not falling back on “legal rights” and “constitutional rights” when that is so very far from the real issue at hand. Indeed, it is terribly obvious that, in falling back upon his legal arguments, he has no concept of, or regard for what it means to truly honor the memories of the fallen of Ground Zero.

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