As was observed long ago, the letter of the law killeth, while its spirit lets live. It's no simple task to follow even the simplest principle in the American scheme of things, including the separation of church and state. Or in this case, the separation of mosque and state.
Just because we have a right to do something under the law, like build a mosque in close proximity to what has become hallowed ground in our shared history, doesn't make it the right thing to do. Blindly following the letter of the law may produce only an on-going provocation and its surest result, on-going resentment. And so defeat an essential purpose of law: to let us all of us live in peace and with mutual respect.
And with respect for what can only be called the ineffable. There are certain places in this country that are hallowed ground, where a haunting presence stills us, humbles us, and makes us think of something besides ourselves and our own rights. The Lincoln Memorial at midnight. Gettysburg as the day lengthens and yellows in the last rays of a setting sun. That field outside Shanksville, Pa., where United Flight 93 finally went down after its passengers refused to be passive victims of terror that fateful day, September 11, 2001.
Another such site is Ground Zero, where the Twin Towers once stood. It, too, is holy ground. And it makes certain demands of us. Those demands aren't easy to spell out in so many words, but all of us know that we must tread carefully at such places. And even around them.
There are other sites around the world hallowed by what took place there. And other controversies have swirled around them, too, conflicts remarkably similar to the one now erupting over the location of a projected mosque and cultural center near Ground Zero.
A large cross once towered over Treblinka, marking the convent of Carmelite nuns nearby. There was nothing wrong with the cross itself. But to have a symbol of another faith so dominate a scene where so many Jews were gassed in one of the great crimes of that or any other century ... it would not have been right. There should be no need to explain why; even to attempt to do so somehow demeans the memory of the dead. As none other than John Paul II, that blessed man, understood. His decision to move the convent did not go down well with the nuns who had served there so long, but the pope understood not just the letter but the spirit of the law, and that the law of love of our fellow man is above all others.