Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The New York mosque controversy highlights the power of victims

By Jonathan Simon

If opponents of the proposal to build a Muslim community center a few blocks from the so called "ground zero" site where the World Trade Center stood until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 are to be believed, they are not so much anti-Muslim as pro-victim. There are argument is that since some family members of 9/11 victims are upset at the prospect of a visible Muslim center so close to where their loved ones were killed by terrorists acting in the name of Islam. Thus according to Michael Barbaro's reporting in the NYTimes, powerful New York Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver has urged consideration of relocating the center to avoid offending the victims:

Breaking his silence on the issue, the speaker, Sheldon Silver, a Democrat whose district includes ground zero, said the organizers’ honorable goal of healing post-Sept. 11 wounds and building bridges among faiths had instead provoked bitter fighting and raw emotions that could not be ignored.

“I think the sponsors,” Mr. Silver said at City Hall, “should take into very serious consideration the kind of turmoil that’s been created and look to compromise.”

As many criminologists have observed, crime victims have become privileged symbols of ordinary citizens, with greatly expanded influence over the criminal justice system (see David Garland, The Culture of Control, p. 11). In Chapter 3 of Governing through Crime, I describe crime victims as "idealized citizen subjects" whose needs come to define the governable interests of the whole community.

The New York controversy is significant in this respect because it shows deference by politicians to victim wishes on an issue that does not involve directly the perpetrators of crimes or indeed any issue of criminal punishment or law enforcement. No one claims the proponents of the Muslim center are linked to the 9/11 plotters (except for some truly deranged bloggers). Instead like Assembly leader Silver, they construct victim feelings as something that must be honored regardless of their objective foundations.

Thankfully Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who unlike Silver and the rest does not depend on re-election for earning a living, has identified the dangerous precedent this kind of capitulation of community (and indeed national interest) to the pure emotions of victims would set:

Mr. Bloomberg, flanked by the center’s developer and the wife of its imam, said he understood the impulse to find a different location, in the hope of ending the controversy.

“But it won’t,” the mayor said. “The question will then become, ‘How big should the ‘no-mosque zone’ around the World Trade Center be?’ ”

He added: “There is already a mosque four blocks away. Should it, too, be moved? This is a test of our commitment to American values. We must have the courage of our convictions. We must do what is right, not what is easy.”

The September 11, 2001 terror attacks were an extraordinary crime. Understandably, the victims have received extraordinary solicitude, including a US taxpayer funded compensation package worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to each survivor. Honoring victims by seeking to address their financial and psychological wounds is appropriate, ceding our democratic values and procedures to their emotional dictates is not.

Cross-posted from the site Governing Through Crime.