In the course of the “Ground Zero mosque” debate, I’ve seen a number of intelligent, moderate minds fall prey to one of the more infuriating arguments I’ve ever heard: whether or not the Cordoba Initiative set out on a peaceful mission, the theory goes, this current furor proves that mission will never succeed. Because the “mosque” will always offend, and always generate controversy, it must be recognized as a failure and abandoned.
This argument has a superficial reasonability to it, doesn’t it? And yet it’s not entirely on the level. In the words of the First Baronet Ruddigore, “fallacy somewhere, I fancy.” But where’s the problem?
I can identify two. First, it seems wrong to imagine that the “mosque” will always offend. These culture war spats never last long. Their proponents can summon an impressive amount of outrage on ridiculously short notice, but it’s always just as transient. Compare President Obama’s recent address to schoolchildren, entirely ignored, with the insistence, last year, that the annual exercise approximated (or equaled) fascism. The peculiar villainy of the Cordoba House “controversy” is just how little its architects actually care about the outcome, and how willing they are, instead, to play off of the tempers of others.
Second, when it comes from the Cordoba House’s opponents, the assertion that the building inflames needless controversy seems rather circular. At best, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that provides meaningful information about the combatants, but not the project.
This is the problem with arguments about “offense.” When drawn out, we let the debate’s existence legitimize itself, and become a self-sustaining system of irrational hate. To prevent this danger, we need to agree — as I thought we had, a long, long time ago — that rules suborning rights to ephemeral notions of offense should be, in a free society, few and far between.