The current fuss over the Park 51 project leads me to think about emotion and rationality. Really big emotional events like 9/11 can be hard to think through, so I want to think in principle about emotion and rationality through something much more everyday, and then turn to the big problem.
When I have an important appointment, it often turns out to be high up in a tall building. Say the twentieth floor. I may be late for an important appointment, and may rush into the elevator in a panic. Other people get on with me, and many of them are headed to floors before mine. They anger me. Sometimes, someone gets on at the third floor and gets off at the fifth. I think this person shows poor moral character in refusing to walk up two floors. Indeed, when I survey my fellow elevator passengers, I see that every one of them is a moral degenerate, barring those whose floor is above mine.
If my appointment is very important and I am very late, this feeling may be strong.
Fortunately, I am also able to think about the situation. I see quite well that some may have appointments just as important as mine, and may be just as late. Even if their appointments are perfectly routine and they are early, they still have a right to use this elevator to serve their purposes just as I am serving mine. What do I want, a kind of triage of urgency in the elevator lobby?
The rationality of my thoughts creates feelings, too, and I do the reasonable thing, I calm down. I wait my turn.
The current fuss in the States over the “Ground Zero Mosque” makes me think about the experience of the elevator. People were traumatized nine years ago with 9/11. They have raw emotions. When an irritant appears, they can get very upset, and their emotion is understandable.
Rationality still matters, though. The emotion connected with death is much greater, but that only increases the need for rationality. The stakes are higher.
The “Ground Zero Mosque” is only an irritant for as long as you think that the Muslim world attacked the United States nine years ago. Given the statements made by the attackers, this is a reasonable starting point. Yet everyone knows that 1.2 billion people were not involved in that attack, and anyone who has paid attention knows that it was widely and roundly condemned by Muslim religious leaders in many parts of the world.
The attackers presented themselves as representatives of true, pure Islam. Their effectiveness depends on people swallowing that story, fantastic though it is.
Those who don’t want to see the community centre built at Park 51 are swallowing that story. If Islam as a whole is guiltless in the attack, there is no reason to resist the project. If Al-Qaeda represents true, pure Islam, then there is every reason.
Rationality should tell people that they ought not to support the second story. They should believe what common sense tells them: that it is not possible for Islam as a whole to be responsible for the attack. If they take the second view on board, then they are damaging the position of their country with respect to a huge number of people in the world, and giving a gift to Al-Qaeda.
Anyone who cares about the United States will support the building of the Park 51 complex right where it is. I think anyone who opposes it lacks patriotism.
When I see the statements made by Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, I would really like to be optimistic, see the best in them. The most generous possible view is that they have the maturity of five-year-olds having a fit, and they genuinely see the situation as they say they see it. The darker view is that they are manipulating the situation for political gain, in the awareness that they are damaging the country by doing so.
I was living in Istanbul nine years ago, working for Koç University. I first heard about 9/11 from my American neighbour in faculty housing. I watched it happen on his TV. My Turkish colleagues were shocked. Many people talked about visits to New York, about buying theatre tickets at the half-price ticket booth in the World Trade Centre. Flags were at half-mast all over Istanbul.
Orhan Pamuk wrote about the experience, too, in the New York Review of Books. He wrote about his own experience as an educated Turk, as a former resident of New York, but also about his less cosmopolitan neighbours in Istanbul who had more mixed feelings. Some Turks, apparently responded with the same ungenerous emotion as many Americans are showing now.