At the Capitol on Thursday, three United States senators weighed in on the decision to build an Islamic cultural center mere blocks from the site of worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. When questioned about the proposal by THE WEEKLY STANDARD, Senators Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.), Olympia Snowe (R., Maine), and John McCain (R., Ariz.) all called the Ground Zero mosque “insensitive.”
In an interview in his Washington office, Isakson explained his reasoning. “The attackers were members of al Qaeda, sponsored by Osama bin Laden, which is an element of radical Islam,” Isakson told me. “I have a serious concern that it serves any good purpose. And in fact it could be totally insensitive to the tragedy that took place there.”
Isakson was sure to stress that his opinion was based on his personal preference, not a legal argument. The junior senator from Georgia acknowledges that he does not “have the authority” to prevent the mosque from being built; rather, as he told me, “I’m giving you my opinion.”
But Isakson made his personal preference clear: “If I had a choice, I would prefer that it not be built.”
Snowe’s concern with the proposed project lies with the families of those who were murdered by the terrorists in the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center. “I think there should be particular sensitivities to the families,” Snowe told me as she was getting on an elevator after the Senate voted to confirm Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court. “It is insensitive to the families.”
For McCain, his opinion on whether the Ground Zero mosque should be built, in his own words, is “obvious.” But he insisted, just as Senator Isakson had said, that he was merely voicing his personal preference, not what is acceptable according to the law: “I understand that I am a senator from Arizona, and I’m a long way from New York City. But I am entitled to my opinion. And obviously my opinion is that I’m opposed to it. I think that it’s something that would harm relations, rather than help.”
When asked about the shady dealings of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the founder of Cordoba Initiative and the American Society of Muslim Advancement (ASMA), the organizations behind the building of the Ground Zero mosque, Senator McCain was concerned: “If they move forward, that clearly needs to be investigated,” he told me.
Senator McCain was hesitant, though, to give President Obama advice on this matter. “I don’t tell him what to say,” McCain told me. “He should say what he feels.”
President Obama’s feelings on this matter are not entirely clear. When asked at a news conference what the president thinks about the proposed Ground Zero mosque, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, “I think this is rightly a matter for New York City and the local community to decide.”
Isakson, Snowe, and McCain, however, share the dominant opinion of New Yorkers. According to a Siena poll from yesterday, 61 percent of New Yorkers oppose the Ground Zero mosque. (56 percent of New York City residents oppose the mosque.)
For Isakson, the memory of 9/11 remains fresh. “You know, Roosevelt said that December 7, 1941 would be the day that lived in infamy,” Isakson explained, citing the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in World War II. “I think that there are two days now [that live in infamy] and the other is 9/11. That terrible tragedy—there’s no way you can erase that. The fact, regardless of what anybody else says, it was a radical attack on the United States of America.”
Senators Scott Brown (R, Mass.), Carl Levin (D, Mich.), Chris Dodd (D, Conn.), and Susan Collins (R, Maine) all declined, when asked by THE WEEKLY STANDARD, to answer questions about the Ground Zero mosque.