The Circus Comes to Ground Zero


On his way to the ceremony commemorating the victims of the worst attack on American soil, volunteer firefighter Sean Noonan sensed something different on the streets surrounding Ground Zero. He’s come to the former site of the World Trade Center for the past nine years to hear the name of his friend, New York City firefighter Paul A. Tegtmeier, read aloud among the rest of the 9/11 victims. Before the ceremony this year, someone in a McDonald's tried to hand him a pin in support of the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” Noonan scoffed.

Also sensing the impending chaos was Jeanie Evans, whose firefighter brother Bobby went to work at his lower Manhattan firehouse nine years ago and came out of the rubble in more than one piece. Evans, 36, came to her ninth 9/11 memorial ceremony wearing a navy blue Engine 33 T shirt and a laminated collage of Bobby photos around her neck. At 10:28 Saturday morning–the time in 2001 when the North Tower collapsed–she and other family members laid flowers inside the fences that guard the Ground Zero site. There was a call for a moment of silence. The tears came next, in uncontrollable bursts.  “You don’t even know you have it in you,” she recalled later, before heading off for a get-together at Bobby’s old firehouse while crowds gathered for the half-dozen planned protests.

To be sure, distractions on the day of remembrance are nothing new:  past anniversaries of 9/11 have seen scuffles involving the conspiracy-minded “Truthers” and groups of pamphlet-wielding evangelists. But by early afternoon in 2010, family members wearing white ribbons were outnumbered on the downtown streets. This year, the dominant point of interest was not the massive pit where the World Trade Center once stood but the site of a former Burlington Coat Factory two blocks away where a Islamic cultural center has been proposed. The debate over Park51 has opened the floodgates about Islam in America and transformed Ground Zero into the chosen venue to protest everything from abortion to conspiracy theories involving Muslim world domination. On block after block, these debates literally happened face-to-face.

Just before 9 a.m., across the street from where an American Airlines flight from Boston smashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower, an Englishman wearing a navy T shirt reading ENGLISH DEFENSE LEAGUE was telling a Portuguese reporter, “No one is saying the mosque shouldn’t be built …” A black SUV drove past. Two men peered out over a tinted window. A high-schooler wearing a yellow shirt stuck out a pamphlet titled “Behind the Glory of the Cross at Ground Zero.” Up the block, passersby grabbed a free IMPEACH OBAMA T shirt.

Welcome to the 2010 9/11 free for all, where per capita invocation of the First Amendment is at an all-time high. At the public viewing area for the 9/11 memorial ceremony, onlookers were sandwiched between the two guys in marshmallow-puff-shaped mascot suits chanting “Support the heroes” and the three-dozen-strong Mennonite youth choir. Christian hymns gave way to accusatory screams from 9/11 Truthers. Later: a pastor in a red tie ranted through a loudspeaker as supporters held pictures of aborted fetuses. And, soon to come, the main event: not the two columns of light illuminating the sky above where the towers once stood, but the dueling protests about a proposed Islamic center. “This used to be a solemn occasion,” said a cop in a white polo shirt. “Now it’s a three-ring circus.”

By midafternoon, protesters flocked to two rallying points, one for each side of the debate that will command the day–namely, whether a 13-story cultural center ought to be built two blocks from Ground Zero. Unlike Evans and Noonan, most of the protesters missed the morning memorial. Many were visiting Ground Zero on September 11 for the first time. And despite their competing signs (“Burn Calories Not Books” vs. “Don’t Tread on Me”) and chants (“Racist bigots, out of New York!” vs. “No Mosque!”), there was a surprising amount of conversation.

In the back of one crowd, where few could understand what the ranting speakers on a distant video board were saying, Glenn Nocera, a 35-year-old treasurer of the Kings County Republican Party, told Godze Avci how he wishes there were more Muslims like her. Avci, 40, replied that she wishes the anti-mosque protest had been split in two: one for those who oppose the Islamic center’s location and one for the “anti-Islam” groups she claims are hijacking the issue. They shook hands as she left. On the next block, several discussion circles popped up, Christians standing toe to toe with Muslims, peace marchers yelling at “no mosque” protesters. No one left with a changed opinion, but neither were the droves of nearby police compelled to intervene in the First Amendment free for all. By the time the protesters dispersed at dusk, the gathering at Bobby Evans’s firehouse had wound down. The firefighters on duty are in for a restful night: even though a group of Muslims on Broadway was handing out free pocket-size Qurans by the hundreds, there was not a fire in sight.

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