America: Ground Zero is as big as all America

Old Glory at Ground Zero in New York City in 2001, taken by a U.S. Navy photographer.

ATLANTA, Georgia. The “9/11” decade is nearly over, but those terrorist attacks nine years ago have left debris in our sharp, sometimes shattered assumptions about this thing we call “America.” This week, as a father and son exploring 9,000 miles of the U.S., we turned a corner in Atlanta and headed north.

But it’s clear that our country hasn’t yet turned a corner from 9/11. This week, we kept bumping into 9/11 debris freshly stirred by the white-hot debate over the construction of a Muslim center and mosque near Ground Zero in New York City.

“I get nervous for Jews when I see crowds forming, shouting that someone in America doesn’t have a right to build their house of worship. Today it’s Muslims; tomorrow it might be Jews again,” author and journalist Benyamin Cohen told us over lunch in Atlanta. Our lunch with Cohen included two Michigan transplants to the South and our entire conversation veered toward Ground Zero much as neighbors nationwide are rehashing these issues.

That desire for self expression is one of the few things on which nearly all Americans agree, according to a nationwide survey by Dr. Wayne Baker for the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. In Baker’s survey, 92 percent of respondents define American freedom as “being able to express unpopular ideas without fear for my safety.” In another question, 94 percent agreed that “if I oppose some U.S. policies, it is because I want to improve my country.” The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

We visited Cohen, an orthodox Jew, to include his unique viewpoint in our ongoing series of reports from the road. Over the past year, he has visited 25 cities to talk about his memoir, “My Jesus Year,” which describes a year he devoted to visiting Christian churches throughout the South. Cohen also is director of content for the Mother Nature Network,, an online news magazine about ecology, science and daily life.

Our hour-long interview with Cohen inevitably turned toward New York. “Here’s the real double standard we’re seeing: A lot of these right-wing people who are speaking out on Ground Zero are always talking about freedom of speech, freedom of guns, constitutional rights, always: freedom, freedom, freedom,” Cohen said. “Well, one of the major tenets of our constitution is freedom of religion.

“If you drive around Atlanta there are churches on every corner. For those people who are so pro freedom and pro constitution to start saying about New York, ‘Yes, but …’ that double standard eats away at me. I feel so strongly about freedom of religion that I’d help a Wiccan church open on my corner if there was any opposition. As a Jew who is outwardly observant and as an American, I understand that religious freedom is one of the core values on which our country was founded.”

Evan Stitt, an executive for an Atlanta-area paper company who grew up in Dearborn and worked many years in metro-Detroit, chimed in. “I like what Benyamin has to say about the strength of our diversity in America. And, a lot of what I’m hearing from New York doesn’t make sense to me. I know that Muslims were among those killed by the terrorists on 9/11. So, how can a mosque be a slap in the face of those who died that day? Innocent Muslims died that day, too.”

Stitt’s wife, Susan, once worked for the city of Dearborn and said she is encountering some very uncomfortable conversations about Ground Zero. “I’ve had quite heated discussions that I never expected to have. I didn’t expect there would be such heated disagreement about the mosque. I’ve had to tell some friends that we’ll just need to agree to disagree on this one. And, in the end, that’s what we’re free to do as Americans.”

(Today’s photos and story by Editor David Crumm and his son Benjamin who are devoting 40 days and 9,000 miles to circling the United States and talking with Americans about what divides and what could unite us.)

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