Politicizing 9/11: The Mosque Flap Is Not the First Time

With Republicans already viewing controversy over the proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero in New York as an opportunity to mobilize discontented voters, Democrats are fighting back with their own accusations: namely, that the GOP is exploiting the September 11 attacks by politicizing the mosque debate. 

Unfortunately, disagreement over the mosque (or whatever it’s being called) isn’t the first occasion that campaigners have used to kick around the 9/11 political football. Here, from the Gaggle's memory, some previous tiffs: 

Dubai Ports: In February 2006 Congress and President George W. Bush butted heads over a business deal that would have given Dubai Ports World (or DP World), a company from the United Arab Emirates, managerial control of terminal operations at ports in several major American cities. Lawmakers from both the Republican and Democratic parties argued that having a foreign company run U.S. ports was a national-security risk; some pointed to the fact that two of the 9/11 hijackers were from the U.A.E. The Bush administration reportedly said the company posed no national-security risks and that the U.A.E. was a strong ally in the war on terror. Regardless, Congress passed legislation in March 2006 blocking the deal. That December, unnerved by the controversy, DP World agreed to sell the ports to AIG Global Investment. 

Medical monitoring of 9/11 responders: In every Congress since 9/11, New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney has sponsored legislation that would provide medical monitoring and health coverage to emergency and cleanup workers who might be suffering as a result of toiling near Ground Zero. Records show that lawmakers let most of those bills languish without making it to the House floor, including one that received Senate backing from Hillary Clinton in 2006. When the Democratic majority in the House finally took up the issue this summer, the bill ran into a procedural snag, as Republicans offered amendments that Democrats refused to accept. It failed to get the necessary votes after a heated debate, with at least one Republican lawmaker citing a lack of cost control in the $7.4 billion measure. Each party pointed fingers afterward.

Post-9/11 federal aid for New York: In the aftermath of the attack, Bush promised $20 billion in aid to New York City. But when it came time for Congress to disburse the funds, New York Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton had to fight to convince Americans elsewhere that the aid was money well spent. They had to bridge cultural gaps as well as political ones:  when the two Democratic senators spoke about bringing New Yorkers back to their “homes” in towering apartment buildings, Trent Lott, the then–GOP senator from Mississippi, admitted he “never thought of [high-rises] as homes … but they are.” By December 2002, The New York Times found that only about a quarter of the money had been spent in the city, leading Democratic lawmakers to gripe about whether the rest of the funds would ever make it to the Big Apple. More billions were slated for long-term projects, but it’s unclear whether all those dollars were spent. 

And now comes the Ground Zero mosque. Frustrating as it may be to people closest to the issue—like the two mothers NEWSWEEK interviewed this summer whose sons, New York firefighters, died on 9/11—what began as a disagreement over the proper way to honor the victims has now become a campaign issue. Last week President Obama defended proponents' right to build the mosque where it is legally permitted. Sen. John Cornyn and other Republicans promptly cited Obama's comments as further evidence that he is out of touch.

At least the mosque debate has produced some eloquent speeches in favor of religious freedom, and, as Slate reports, a bit of irony: one measure that has shored up the case for the cultural center is 2000 legislation that gave churches, synagogues, and, yes, mosques more clout in disputes with local and municipal authorities. It was pushed by the religious right.

Join the Discussion