The Park51 Muslim community center and mosque complex should not be built near  Ground Zero because I heard it will contain a birthing pool for terrorist babies.

Seriously, can this manufactured story twist further into the absurd? It’s an election year, and we’re dealing with two wars, a lingering recession, and an environmental catastrophe in the Gulf. Thus, obviously, we’ve decided to engage in heated national debate… about the future of a Burlington Coat place in Manhattan. It’s an embarrassment reminiscent of the Terri Schiavohullabaloo in the spring of 2005. Will we leave an American city to drown again in a few months so we can put this mosque distraction in perspective?

Justin Elliot traces the arc of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” story in an informative Salon article. He shows how Islamophobicconservative blogger Pamela Geller pushed the “Monster Mosque” story until it finally gained national media attention. Then it was off to the races once politicians joined in. Elliot begins his piece with a quick set of helpful facts:

A group of progressive Muslim-Americans plans to build an Islamic community center two and a half blocks from ground zero in lower Manhattan. They have had a mosque in the same neighborhood for many years. There’s another mosque two blocks away from the site. City officials support the project. Muslims have been praying at the Pentagon, the other building hit on Sept. 11, for many years.

In short, there is no good reason that the Cordoba House project should have been a major national news story, let alone controversy.

I recommend you read the whole piece. Alternatively, you can read Elliot’s work in former Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown’s widely published commentary, which lifts entire paragraphs from the Salon article without attribution. (It’s not the first time Brown has done this.)

Either way, you’ll see there’s no core “issue” here. Do American citizens have the right to legally build a house of worship in the United States of America? Clearly – YES!

But we want to object. It’s a mosque two blocks from the World Trade Center site. We have dark suspicions because the mosque involves… Islam, and the terrorists were Muslim, so… Well, you see it’s a very emotional issue. Remember that thousands died on 9/11. Those are the non sequiturs forming the empty “core” of this debate so far, as the end of this CNN interviewinadvertently demonstrates.

Leadership has been in short supply. Politicians have mostly pandered to voters by condemning the mosque. (New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie being a notable exception.) They’re stoking this “emotional” issue for all it is worth. But that leads to questions. Precisely why is this an emotional issue? What’s at the root of it:

the complaint seems to boil down to a vague sense that doing Muslim stuff near ground zero is an unhappy reminder of terrorism

And there you have it. We associate American Muslims with 9/11. But if that’s the case, why aren’t we “emotional” about the existing mosque standing five blocks from Ground Zero? Do we know what the imam at that mosque said after 9/11? Should the Manhattan mosque be closed out of “respect” to those murdered on 9/11? And what’s that earlier item about Muslim prayers in the Pentagon? Where’s the outrage about that?

John Stewart’s Daily Show captured the absurdity in this 9 minute segment ,which I consider essential viewing. It reviews the lack of national leadership on this issue, and concludes with the uncomfortably funny query: Should we build catholic churches near playgrounds? (The answer to that is “yes,” by the way.)

What in principle, is the objection to the mosque? Are opponents recommending a new law to address the situation? How would they apply it? Will it affect other properties, like the Ground Zero gentleman’s club? (Apparently a strip club near hallowed ground is okey doke, but a Muslim community center in an old coat store is an affront.)

And if we’re serious about not wanting tokens of Islam besmirching the vicinity of Ground Zero, let’s do this thing right. We’ll go block by block and cleanse the neighborhood around the site: no Arabic may be spoken, no middle eastern flags waved, no chicken shawarma served, no turbans worn, no facing Mecca while praying to the God of Abraham, no Al-gebra practiced… and, for good measure, tourists from New Orleans can’t refer to their home town as the “Crescent City”. All these freedoms will be curtailed, you see, out of “respect.”

As Americans, we’ll surely wreck ourselves if we respect ourselves this way.

The core principle at the center of this controversy is freedom. The United States strives to be a country that respects freedom even when –  especially when – a majority disagrees with a particular expression of that freedom. Actually, that’s precisely when our commitment to freedom counts the most. Over the years we’ve often failed, but that’s no excuse to fail again.

Yet suddenly we have conservatives – who are usually so keen on Constitutional principles – citing polls and people’s sensitivities to justify their opposition to the Park51 house of worship. Local columnist Jeff Crouere cited these reasons in a recent column. Then Crouere went for broke, declaring “no mosque should be built in any location until all questions are answered about the financing and support of the project.” It was unclear whether Crouere wanted to enlarge government in order to enforce his suggestion. New York authorities are satisfied that there are no law enforcement issues regarding the planned mosque, but Crouere is concerned there are questionable “ties.” He cites no specific information.

Must we remind Crouere that the Constitution is a majority of one, and the freedoms enshrined therein aren’t encapsulated in “if/then” clauses related to poll numbers or group sensitivities? If he knows something the authorities don’t about criminal funding or terrorist connections, he should bring it to their attention. He shouldn’t be coy or vague –  unless his goal is to fear-monger about vague “Muslim stuff”.

Worse than Crouere’s piece was New York Times’ columnist Ross Douthat’s recent effort. In it, Douthat identified an “American tradition” that stands alongside the Constitution. He describes it as a “cultural understanding of the country” which offers “real wisdom” apart from the principles in our founding documents. What sort of “wisdom” is he talking about? Well, Douthat believes many Americans suspect that “Islam in any form may be incompatible with the American way of life.” According to Douthat, this alternate, non-Constitutional “understanding” has historically used  discrimination and persecution to force new immigrant ethnic groups to assimilate into the American Way. How useful. (Tapped’s Jamelle Bouie responds to Douthat at more length here.)

While Douthat and other conservatives may believe this second American “tradition” is indispensable, I think it has always dragged us down. Our expanding, evolving American culture needn’t have an extra-legal enforcement division. Our cultural power comes from the things we do as a free people. It’s in our open example to the world. Far from being a source of wisdom, I view American provincialism as a hindrance to our success – a regression into “Know Nothing-ism.” Fear and discrimination have too often clipped the wings of our spirits.

Perhaps the only upside to this NYC mosque hysteria is that it interrupted a national discussion about the aforementioned “terror baby” nonsense. We had just concluded hearings for a new Supreme Court justice that included a lot of talk strictly interpreting the Constitution. Then, suddenly, many of these same strict constructionists want to change the 14th amendment. Why? Because illegal immigrants might come here to have anchor babies, and some of these anchor babies might also be terror babies.

Both of these “issues” were elevated into national discussion because they stoke that dark element in our national character – praised by Douthat – that we’ve spent centuries trying to overcome: fear of the fringe, the other, the different. When times are tough in an election year, we can just make something up – so let’s get tough on the Park51 mosque and terror babies! They’ve had it too easy for too long.

Local pols jumped into the fray, of course. Never one to privilege principle over grandstanding, Sen. David Vitter said the mosque was a “slap in the face to the American people.” His Senate-race opponent, Charlie Melancon responded with a lukewarm objection to the mosque that mirrored President Obama’s lukewarm “support” of it.

But Newt Gingrich was the one who really crystallized my view of what’s wrong with this controversy. While Gingrich is generally regarded as a thoughtful conservative, you wouldn’t know it by the way he’s handled this mosque issue. First, he caught flack from Pat Buchanan (of all people), when he compared the mosque developers to Nazis erecting a sign near the Holocaust museum. Shortly thereafter, Gingrich made a statement against the mosque that sounded like it was penned by Benito Mussolini’s speechwriter. It was this little fascist bon mot that actually inspired me to write this column:

There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.

Outrageous! Since when do the policies in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or any other country for that matter, dictate the extent of our freedoms here in America? The Constitution is our guarantor, whether or not the House of Saud liberalizes its stone-age religious laws. That’s precisely what makes us exceptional: We are an experimental nation, bonded by shared truths in a national compact. Our freedoms are defined by the Constitution, not by our blood, and certainly not by our adversaries. Since when do we curtail inconvenient expressions of freedom based on the standards of a repressive, backwards oligarchy? Is Gingrich prepared to follow his logic and say that until Saudi Arabia opens Mecca to Christians, we will forbid Muslims to enter Manhattan? Is that how the enlightened American Experiment works now?

As embarrassing as this mosque kerfuffle is, the real embarrassment is that nine years after terrorists struck us, the hallowed ground which so many are “defending” is mostly empty space. John Poderetz brings some surprising perspective in his recent New York Post column. (Ignore the “in its place” misnomer):

Imagine that, in the weeks following [9/11], you had expressed the opinion that in nine years’ time… there would be no memorial, no museum, no nothing on the 16 acres on which the towers themselves sat.

Forget the whole question of whether there would be a mosque (or Islamic cultural center) in its place. Just imagine that you’d delivered the view that New York would so completely fail to maintain a sense of purpose regarding the salvation of Ground Zero. Imagine the scorn to which you’d have been subjected at the suggestion.

Yet here we are. Memories of the last nine years have turned Ground Zero from a site of horror, to a reminder of grief, to an occasion for ludicrous artistic posturing — and now to something very close to parody.

Four years ago, in his uniquely inept way, Mayor Ray Nagin observedthat the WTC site was still a “hole in the ground.” Despite his horrible choice of words, Nagin might have had a point about the pace of rebuilding. Now New Yorkers like Podheretz are saying that the site is a disgrace. I’ll take it a step further: Isn’t it more shameful that we heatedly argue about a mosque 2 blocks from a hallowed site, yet barely care about the lack of progress rebuilding the site itself? Whatever you think of the Park51 complex, isn’t it a bigger insult to the memory of the victims of 9/11 that almost nothing – no finished memorial or building – exists on this site nine years after the attacks? Why doesn’t this embarrassing fact inflame our emotions like the mosque does?

I thought we were supposed to have a Freedom Tower by now; a monument showing the world that the United States can still take a punch and come back stronger; a dominating presence in a city where every ethnicity and creed peacefully co-exist; a symbolic testament to the fact that our shared belief in American freedom can’t be scared away.

Instead, we have terrorist babies and a mosque at the top of our national consciousness.

Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and...