Commentary: Practicing the tolerance we preach

Like many Americans, I, too, have vivid memories of where I was and what I was doing on Sept. 11, 2001.

At the time, I was living and working as a reporter in the Bay Area, and I had just awakened to a phone call from my sister in the Midwest urging me to turn on the television. I watched in horror and disbelief as the second plane slammed into the twin towers, and the burning buildings collapsed in clouds of smoke and ash.

In that moment, I was sad, angry and afraid, and recall steadying myself for an afternoon in the field gathering comments for the next day's paper.

I cannot pretend to imagine what it was like in New York that day and in the months and years afterward; the gut-wrenching grief that the citizens and the family members who lost loved ones at the World Trade Center must have felt and are still feeling.

Their pain should not be dismissed or forgotten.

With that sentiment in mind, it can be tempting to fall in step with those who believe that an Islamic community center — dubbed the "ground zero mosque" — proposed for a site a few blocks away from ground zero (and not far from an actual mosque) should not be built there.

Some conservative opponents of the center say that it's a deliberate slap in the face of the survivors, something akin to throwing salt in an open wound. Others in the political arena, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, say they believe in the First Amendment right to protect freedom of religion, but that it's an inappropriate place.

Still more are taking it one step further, opposing not only the mosque blocks from ground zero, but also other Muslim places of worship in communities across the United States.

In Temecula, plans for a mosque were the target of protesters. It was a similar story in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, N.Y., and in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Herein lies the problem with traveling down this path.

America, at its core, is a land where religious freedom and tolerance is not only accepted but also encouraged. We are a big salad bowl filled with people from myriad religious and ethnic backgrounds, and we agree to disagree while living side by side.

We pride ourselves on these qualities, and yet, many of us appear to be adopting the very attitudes that we purport to be against.

The terrorists who murdered Americans — Muslims included — do not represent the majority of people who practice that faith. In fact, the idea behind the community center is to promote tolerance and understanding, and reject the extremist views that led to the attacks.

Moreover, opposition to the center only emboldens the terrorist cause. It would be so convenient for terrorists to say, "See, Americans are hypocrites," even as they would not tolerate such freedoms themselves.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a group of 9/11 survivors agree that staunch opposition to the mosque is no way to fight back. And as Bloomberg said recently, "The question will then become, how big should the 'no-mosque zone' around the World Trade Center site be? There is already a mosque four blocks away. Should it, too, be moved?"

I still have faith that America is a nation that stands up for its values and principles. But if we continue down a road of intolerance, we may one day live in a country we no longer recognize.

The way to honor those who died on Sept. 11, 2001, is to prove to the world that we really do practice what we preach.