How right would it be if, God forbid, the Dome of the Rock that now crowns the Temple Mount in Jerusalem were to be destroyed and the ancient Jewish temple rebuilt nearby? The sight would be not only a casus belli but also surely a violation of the command to love thy neighbor -- not deeply offend him. Yet you can bet that Israeli police have to keep tabs on the kind of Jewish fanatics who harbor just such hateful delusions.
Both the Japanese and Germans have long and interesting histories, with cultures to match. But surely no one would want to erect a museum of Japanese culture at Pearl Harbor, say, or in the main square of Nanking, as in Rape of. Nor would a towering monument to German contributions to Western civilization be appropriate on the site of the concentration camp at Dachau. No matter what the zoning laws permitted. Or what rights the current German constitution protects. There is law and there is an unwritten law. There is the letter and the spirit.
If this 15-story structure planned near Ground Zero is truly to be a center of interfaith understanding, surely those planning it could find a place for it where its purpose would not be obscured by its very location. For its presence so close to the scene of that monstrous crime would inevitably be seen as a thumb in America's eye. It would serve as a constant provocation, attracting protests and making still more work for New York's already stressed police force. However legal such a location might be.
Only the literal-minded could view this controversy as just a matter of what the First Amendment says on paper and nothing more, including the historical context in which the rights it guarantees would be exercised. And the effect that exercising them would have on others. That kind of tone-deafness might qualify those who exhibit it as sharp lawyers, but not as serious thinkers.
Lest we forget, even black-letter law comes surrounded by white space in which there is plenty of room for commentary, nuance and reflection. Space in which reasonable men may differ over whether it is responsible to exercise a legally unquestionable, but ethically debatable, right.
All those dimensions were missing from Professor/President Barack Obama's cut-and-dried law-school lecture on the subject delivered at a dinner marking the beginning of Ramadan -- followed by a clarification that didn't much clarify. Where does the president come down on this issue? Who knows? As best one can tell, he favors building the mosque but not necessarily.
Seldom has President Cool's distance from the feelings of his fellow Americans been so clear as in this legal brief and later addendum on what he treated as purely a question of law rather than one that touches Americans to the quick. The most impressive quality of this president is the unfeeling distance he manages to put between himself and We the People. He doesn't so much lead us as lecture us from some abstract plane where emotional reality never intrudes.
The letter of the law is no substitute for the understanding spirit that softens and raises it to the level of ethics and morality, a law above the law. John Adams said it: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people; it is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." Without an inner light, and an inner sense of restraint, the law becomes just a playing field for a Hobbesian war of all against all, a confused struggle in which all are so intent on exercising their own rights they forget the rights, and feelings, of others.
The Constitution of the United States rightly protects the free exercise of religion. But like any other right, it comes with an unspoken responsibility: to exercise that most effective form of restraint, self-restraint. Call it manners, as John Fletcher Moulton did in his famous address, "Law and Manners." And manners maketh not only the man but the nation. Without manners, that self-enforcing law, a society cannot hope to remain both free and orderly. In such a society, there is a responsibility to be more than legal. There is a responsibility to be generous, kind, considerate, self-denying -- to be right in more than a limited legal sense, to practice and invite reciprocity. That way lies peace. As in Salaam Aleikem -- peace unto you. And to all of us.