Catriona Robertson

journeys at home and abroad

Ground Zero

Maybe it’s just a summertime news spike, but there’s been increasing coverage of the plans to build an Islamic community centre near the site of the former World Trade Centre in New York City, which was destroyed by terrorists on 9/11.

I welcome a lively public conversation – how else should we work out, together, what sort of city or world we want? – although this one seems to have polarised rather quickly between those who think it triumphalist of Muslims to build something like this near the Ground Zero site (for views on how near is ‘near’, see a recent Salon post), and those who make a distinction between (American) Muslims in general and the 9/11 terrorists in particular, and who want to retain the religious freedom so precious to passengers on the Mayflower in 1620.

The last time I was in Manhattan I stayed in Battery Park City, which was created from the excavation material from the building of the twin towers.  The Ground Zero site still looked, two and half years ago, very desolate.

Memorial to the Great Famine in New York City (photo: David Shankbone)

Between my hotel and the Hudson river there was something very different.  Even in mid-winter, the memorial to the C19th Irish Gorta Mór or Great Hunger, which commemorates a famine that took a million lives and prompted another million Irish people to emigrate, is a beautiful, contemplative place to come across.  It’s partly a patch of rural Ireland, with grasses, heather and stone walls, and partly a collection of quotations and thoughts on famine and on migration.  When it was created (2002), the intention was to add more, as further hunger crises occurred.

Of course there is no public memorial to the dead of the Gorta Mór in London, so far as I know – we were part of the problem, not part of the solution.

New Yorkers, and US citizens generally, will have to decide how they want to live together.  With the mid-term elections coming up, everyone seems to have an opinion, from Sarah Palin (“hallowed ground“) to the the President.  If new mosques or Islamic centres or schools are banned in lower Manhattan, what effect would that have?  Would anything else be banned?  How would Muslims, and maybe other groups, feel about it?  It seems that some of those who oppose the Islamic centre in Park Place think it runs counter to honouring those who died at the World Trade Centre – it’s an affront, it shows disrespect.  So what is needed to remember those who died on 9/11?  And what is needed to be able to reach some kind of consensus or acceptance of different views, in uncertain times, on the historical significance of the atrocities that day?  How do we live well locally when our neighbourhood includes the site of a wider conflict?  How do we carry that responsibility?

Northern Irish schools had difficulty agreeing a shared history syllabus and textbooks after the Good Friday agreement – but they’ve managed it.  Bosnia is still struggling to agree what version of history should be taught to children in school.  When I think back on conflicts I’ve been part of, I know my own re-telling of the story is very different from my antagonist’s – unless our differences have been worked through and acknowledged.  Painful stuff.

Without some agreement on the past, it’s hard to find a shared future.  It’s early days for New York City but I’m hoping it won’t want to be part of the problem, it’ll be part of the solution and show us how different kinds of people, even under difficult circumstances, can share our cities and our world.


This entry was posted on 28 August 2010 by in New York City, USA and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
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