Communication Currents

Strength in Weakness: Pseudo-Patriotism Surrounds the Ground Zero Mosque Dispute

August 1, 2014
Critical and Cultural Studies

In late 2009, the media registered encouragement for the grand plans to renovate Cordoba House, an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan with an interfaith mission. Yet, just six months later, a public maelstrom erupted over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” as the majority of Americans from across the political spectrum—including President Obama—called for the center’s relocation in the name of common decency. The communication frenzy surrounding Cordoba House marked the onset of a new, post-post 9/11 American narrative that tells of a country traumatized, under siege, and unable to extend constitutionally guaranteed freedoms for fear of being hurt again.

After 9/11, Americans enjoyed an unprecedented sense of patriotism that continued to grow during the early years of the war on terror as the Bush administration spun an inspiring national narrative of democratic destiny. However, the war’s demoralizing failures left Americans disillusioned and anxious. The Cordoba House mission exacerbated this anxiety, reminding Americans of their shirked responsibilities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cordoba House offered Americans an opportunity to cultivate a much-needed identity as mighty victims. Whereas the patriotism of post-9/11 America depended on a language of freedom, the pseudo-patriotism of the Cordoba House dispute depended on a hopeless language of wounding, peril, and martyrdom. Americans became eager to suspend constitutional freedoms and democratic processes to protect their freshly re-wounded national spirit. This national narrative of victimage depended on three important communication strategies notable for their ability to produce victimage without explicitly using “victim” language.

The first is the frequent description of events using the past imperfective, which is a verb construction that puts the word “had” or “had been” before the past tense noun to describe an action that began at some point in the past but continues to have effects or “feel real” in the present. Supporters and opponents of Cordoba House frequently use the past imperfective to engage one another in public forums. Cordoba Initiative co-founder Daisy Khan, for example, told BBC News that the project “opened up a wound that we did not realize had not healed.

Although Khan’s explicit communicative purpose is to express and rally support for Cordoba House’s mission of healing Muslim-American relations, her use of the past imperfective suggests a competing message: 9/11 is still “too raw, too real.” Such expressions accomplish the same purpose as the past imperfective through other language, reminding Americans of "the pain we all still feel." Focusing on the constructions of time in public communication is important because while we have objective measurements of when things happen, from timelines and calendars to clocks and countdowns, our language constructs our experience of time and those constructions always have motivations.

A second strategy that kept Americans immobilized by trauma was the comparison of Ground Zero to other sites of historical tragedy by way of analogy. Cordoba House was frequently likened to the Japanese putting a site next to Pearl Harbor, Nazis marching through Skokie, Ill., a Dylan Klebold Memorial Nurse’s Office at Columbine High School, a Nazi memorial next to Auschwitz, or a Ku Klux Klan memorial in Gettysburg. When New York City Republican Rep. Peter King compared the Cordoba House controversy to a conflict over a proposed Catholic convent near Auschwitz in the 1980s, he explained that while the historical, cultural, and legal circumstances are different in each scenario, the “moral outrage” makes them similar. This is an important lesson about how public understanding comes to be. Humans reason through analogy; they compare new, unfamiliar events to things they have in their catalogue. There is no intrinsic rule that makes any analogy or comparison legitimate. Analogies become popular because of their ability to construct immediate understanding.  

Another problematic effect of these analogies is that they hallow or sanctify Ground Zero. Although it has been common to describe Ground Zero as a sacred site since 9/11, its sacredness exploded during the public outrage over Cordoba House. “When we speak of Ground Zero as hallowed ground,” explained one protestor, “we mean…that it belongs to those who suffered and died there—and that such ownership obliges us, the living, to preserve the dignity and memory of the place, never allowing it to be forgotten, trivialized, or misappropriated.” It is difficult to make democratic decisions for “the greater good” when public space is controlled by those who have suffered the most.

The third strategy, already at work in the previous quote, is repetition or listing. Humans, especially in modernity, live in an uncertain world without clear mandates for right and wrong, friend and foe, etc. However, those things are necessary to feel secure, so they are created through communication. Repetition is an important tool for this task because it creates certainty and conviction. Indeed, patterns or repetition are the closest nature ever gets to permanence.

Repetition’s first effect, as seen above, was re-consecrating our national wound, which, in turn, re-wounded the nation. The second effect of repetition was constructing enemies, which was necessary to create a new threat a decade after 9/11. A Cordoba House protestor caught on film demonstrates how repetition can place a nation under siege: “On September 11, it wasn’t New York City that was attackedit was America that was attackedit was freedom that was attacked. And we can’t forget…the murderous intent that killed 3,000 Americans…we can’t forget for a momentwe can’t ever forget that murderous intent.”

For Cordoba House supporters, repetition reinforced the belief that virtuous, liberal-minded citizens, always and everywhere under attack, will suffer. Protecting Cordoba House became an issue of national security as progressives were advised to “say, with numbing repetition, the following truths: that progressive policies have the Taliban on the run, al-Qaida crippled, Iran isolated, nukes secured, terrorist plots squashed, and pirates crushed.”

Nearly a decade after George W. Bush told the American people to fight terror with freedom, the public outrage over Cordoba House delivered an America eager to sacrifice a democracy built on economic development, private property, and religious freedom for an oligarchy of pain ruled not by wealth, property, or education but by righteous suffering. And a patriotism built on suffering is no patriotism at all.

About the author (s)

Lee M. Pierce

University of Georgia

Doctoral Candidate