NEW YORK CITY -- We stood together in the rain on a Sunday in late summer, most of us as protesters, some of us angrier than others, and some of us there as observers to take the temperature of anger at West Broadway and Park Place. We stood close to ground zero, as the place where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood will always be called. This was holy ground. We could feel it.
Many in the crowd of the 500 or so men and women protesting the construction of what New Yorkers call "the ground zero mosque" had been directly touched by terrorism, having lost friends, family, husbands, wives and lovers among the 3,000 Americans who died here. Many of the dead were cops and firemen who died trying to save others.
Angry politics was the order of the day, with one side crying shame at those who "show no sensitivity for sacred ground," the other accusing the first group of having no regard for the founding ideals of the republic.
The reasons on both sides are understandable, depending on your point of view. But everything seems all mixed together -- anger, sadness and a profound sense that America has lost something big here. Not just the size of the towers -- the buildings were always controversial from an aesthetic perspective -- but something amorphous, the belief in our invulnerability and lovability.
Americans want to be loved (which is why we could never make it as a colonial power), and though we're sometimes perceived as arrogant we have always imagined that others see us as meaning well even when we get it wrong. This controversy exposes an ugly side, where we get up close and personal and not only disagree, but really, really dislike those who disagree with us.
The founders knew that for our nation to come together we had to stretch our principles to embrace protection of opinions that were sometimes hard to abide. On big issues there would always be big fights.
Fearing that some of our worst fights could be over an established state religion, the Bill of Rights set out first the right of religious faith -- the government could never tell us how or what to worship, or whether to worship anything at all. This has enabled many religious faiths to flourish, but it has never kept anyone from regarding someone else's faith with distrust or even revulsion.
Sometimes arguments get robust. Mormons, Mennonites and Moonies have taken it on the chin at times in our past. Protestants and Catholics have regarded each other with hostility. Catholics and Jews have been exploited by stereotypes. Even Baptists and Methodists have occasionally had angry spats in small-town America.