A model Park 51 discussion

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 11:   A firefighter stands by a bell after ringing it to mark the 9:03 am crash of United Airlines Flight 175  against the South Tower of the World Trade Center during a 9/11 memorial ceremony near Ground Zero September 11, 2008 in New York City. Family and friends of the victims, heads of government and others gathered at the 7th annual ceremony to remember the attacks that killed more than 2,700 people with the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Earlier this week I wrote something for the Washington Post/Newsweek "On Faith" section about media missteps in coverage of the mosque proposed to be built near ground zero. One of the points I made was that the media make the opposing sides in this debate seem farther apart than they are:

The media frequently frame the debate unfairly. Opposition to the mosque isn't the same as asking the government to intervene, despite frequent media confusion. Polls show most Americans affirm the First Amendment rights of Park 51 developers even as they have concerns. The debate, as Crain's New York noted, is "whether building the Islamic center is 'a right' or 'the right thing to do.'" President Barack Obama's position was more nuanced than the media reported, too. His remarks emphasized the First Amendment protections afforded to all Americans. But after a few hours of news stories claiming he had "forcefully endorsed" the mosque, the administration pointed out he hadn't actually discussed the wisdom of it. By failing to notice the nuance on both sides, the media force a binary division that makes Americans seem farther apart on the issue than they are. One notable exception was Newsweek's look at two 9/11 mothers with differing views having a friendly conversation despite their differences.

I had been meaning to highlight that piece here for weeks. Better late than never. The piece is written by Newsweek's Lisa Miller and she chose a great narrative structure to humanize the people who are so invested in this debate. One mom favors the mosque project, the other finds it inappropriate. Here's the powerful beginning:

They have almost everything in common, including the tragedy that defines their lives. Both women were born in the Bronx and educated in Catholic schools. They married and raised kids of their own in the boroughs that circle Manhattan; as parents, they--like most of us--fought too much and counted blessings too little. On September 11, 2001, Sally Regenhard and Adele Welty each lost one brave and handsome son--firefighters both--in the conflagration at the World Trade Center. Welty's son Timmy, 34, was recovered only partially and in pieces--a fact that she, a 74-year-old grandmother, still cannot bring herself to recall without her chin trembling like a child's. Christian Regenhard, 28, simply evaporated; not a cell of him was ever found. "'He is unaccounted for,'?" Regenhard remembers a gruff old firefighter saying when she finally reached the firehouse by phone that Tuesday night. She mimics his tough Brooklyn accent--"fawr"--and as she does, her face crumples in grief. "Unaccounted for?" she remembers asking. "That's something they say in war."

I met with Welty and Regenhard recently on neutral turf--a hotel conference room near Central Park--for despite their shared experience, they firmly disagree about one thing. A large Islamic cultural center and mosque is proposed two blocks from the place where their children died, and since former Alaska governor Sarah Palin voiced her opposition--"UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts"--in a tweet heard round the world last month, the so-called Ground Zero mosque has become the focus of a vicious public battle. Welty supports it. She believes the mosque and community center will give a face and voice to moderate, peaceful, ordinary Muslims and so stand against the forces of terrorism and fundamentalism. "If we manage to get it built and can avoid violence in the process, the world can see that we are a towering nation, that we believe in and practice freedom of religion." Regenhard opposes it. It's too soon, she says. It's too close to Ground Zero, and it doesn't take into account the sensitivities of people like her, whose loved ones, she believes, may still be scattered even beyond the 16-acre area where the towers once stood. If the people behind the mosque really desired peace, as they say they do, they would move it somewhere else out of respect for the sanctity of that place. "You never change hearts and minds by shoving your religion on someone else."

The piece fairly discusses each woman's arguments and they both sound so reasonable, regardless of whether they are correct. In a media environment where some reporters are working overtime to make one side sound like unhinged, xenophobic bigots, it's so nice to see a reporter discussing the actual arguments of women such as Regenhard.

To be able to accurately characterize both arguments, Miller met with each woman separately and then got them together to engage. Neither convinces the other, which is to be expected but also a nice way of showing that you don't have to agree with someone to be civil.

It's just a great model for how this one particular angle of the debate -- whether this mosque project is disrespectful or an expression of American religious freedom (or both!) -- can be discussed fruitfully.

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