Is questioning the presence of a mosque at ground zero really a sign of bigotry?
Or is it just common sense?
This week, the prospects of an Islamic center's rising on the boundary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks were all but assured when a New York City commission unanimously voted to allow the demolition of the building that now sits on the site.
Which, technically speaking, is the right thing to do.
After all, if we were to apply a skewed moral litmus test to First Amendment protections, we'd be no better than folks who support the Fairness Doctrine or oppose the Citizens United campaign finance decision.
And if we backed the use of zoning laws to compel others to act in accordance with our own value systems, hey, we'd be as tyrannical as the average environmentalist on the average city council.
But since when does deference to the Constitution prohibit a person from pointing out the obvious and worrisome symbolism of this project?
If we concede that a mosque at ground zero is a sign of our tolerance -- and it is -- surely debating the problems with its setting lets the world know we have the cognitive ability not to be a bunch of saps.
It is, you see, ugly and un-American to question the motivations of those opening an Islamic center a stone's throw from ground zero -- a project that will cost $100 million -- but not ugly of organizers to pick a spot that's a stone's throw from ground zero.
Those who have spoken out against the project -- Sarah Palin, Rick Lazio, Newt Gingrich and the Anti-Defamation League, among many others -- have been accused of political grandstanding and, naturally, of peddling a form of unquenchable "bigotry."
Let's concede that grandstanding is a permanent feature of political interaction. (Though there have been fewer distasteful forms of grandstanding than the preening and imperious lecturing we see from those who decide what is and isn't tolerance.) But opposing the ideology of religious institutions -- any religion -- does not constitute bigotry.
Furthermore, Daisy Khan, a partner in the Cordoba project, conceded in an interview with National Public Radio that Islam "has been hijacked by the extremists, and this center is going to create that counter-momentum, which will amplify the voices of the moderate Muslims."
That would be a productive -- if unprecedented -- undertaking. We need more secularized Muslims. And, of course, reasonable Americans do not conflate the moderate with the radical. Yet even Khan states that the religion has been "hijacked." So surely, it is to be expected that some would be skeptical of the group's intentions.
There is, you see, some evidence to back the concern.
Though the Cordoba Initiative is under no obligation to do so, if its purpose is to battle extremism within Islam and build cooperation with other faiths, why not divulge the funders of the project? Why not unconditionally condemn Islamist terrorism?
Neither has happened.
Then again, even if we were boundlessly tolerant, there is an inescapable fact: This 13-story community center is going to be built two blocks from the worst modern atrocity committed in the name of Islam.
Such a project is not just in poor taste; for many Americans, it confirms their concerns about Islam's provocative nature.
How that helps interfaith dialogue remains a mystery.