Rick Lazio has always had boyish good looks and a charming personality. I discovered this working with him on the World War II legislation—the Wartime Violation of Italian American Civil Liberties Act—of which he was the co-sponsor, and which was signed into Public Law 106-451 on November 7, 2000. Lazio was able to work with Democrat Eliot Engel and others in the House of Representatives, and, as a Republican, seems to have had some influence with then-Judiciary Committee Chairman, Henry Hyde, in granting the Una Storia Segreta project the critical Judiciary hearings that ensured the bill’s passage. For all this I was and am grateful, as is the entire Italian American community.
Recently, however, in his attempt to become New York State’s governor, another side of Rick Lazio has come to the fore, and it is neither handsome nor charming. Though he seems to have repudiated the Tea Party in his state (partly, at least, because his primary opponent, Carl Paladino, has become their darling of the moment), Lazio has concluded that the silly flap over the building of an Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero can be a winning issue for him, and, despite vigorous criticism from all sides, is milking it for all it’s worth. Some have accused Lazio of being so desperate for campaign funds that he has sunk to this level to raise money. Whether or not this is true, his words and his position in this controversy make clear that Lazio’s moral compass can easily go missing when he senses an opportunity. In this, of course, he has ample company—including most of the Republican Party and a large number of Democrats as well.
To briefly review the controversy: plans to build a 13-story Islamic Cultural Center once known as Cordoba House, now known as Park51, two blocks from Ground Zero, were recently approved by the New York State landmark preservation board. Tea Party activists including Sarah Palin, have raised hell about this “insult” to the memory of 9/11 victims and the alleged sacrilege to what is called “hallowed ground.” Notwithstanding the fact that the structure is the brainchild of Imam Faisel Abdul Rauf—a man so associated with bridge-building among faiths that he was chosen as an ambassador without portfolio to help the Bush Administration reach out to Muslim nations and promote the American image abroad—and notwithstanding the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom, the project is being compared to planting a Nazi sign at Auschwitz, or building “a memorial to kamikaze pilots next to the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.” (this last from Carl Paladino, Lazio’s opponent in the Republican primary.)
Incredibly, Lazio has taken the accusations several steps further. Claiming that his objection is not religious (President Obama has stated publicly that religious freedom guarantees Muslims the same rights to build a center as anyone else), but involves only a plea for “transparency,” Lazio has raised the issue of “safety and security.” He has therefore attacked his expected opponent and current Attorney General of New York, Democrat Andrew Cuomo, for failing to investigate the “books” of the project to find out who is funding it. This call for transparency is clearly shorthand for raising the issue of terrorism—a barely veiled warning that mosques should be suspected as fronts for terrorist groups bent on harming New Yorkers. Here is how he framed it in an appearance on the PBS News Hour on August 16:
“What I’ve been calling for is transparency. There’s a certain defiance about the need to put it right there…This Cordoba initiative has $18,000. right now for a $100 million mosque…Where is this money coming from? Who’s behind this?....Let’s open the books, let’s find out where it’s coming from, whether it’s a foreign government or militant organizations that are funding this. The question here is whether or not we should feel safe, this is about safety and security…This is about what’s right, what’s ethical, what’s decent, what’s fair, and from a standpoint of safety…”
Thus, where most criticism of the Islamic Center project focused on its alleged insult to the memory of the dead, Lazio, though he refers to “what’s ethical, what’s decent, what’s fair,” has abandoned ethics, decency and fairness to foreground the element of fear: is this project funded by the same terrorists who funded 9/11?
As if to amplify his verbal raising of the fear factor, Lazio has recently released a two-minute video described as “a collage of various opinions from people filmed near Ground Zero,” featuring “images taken on September 11, 2001 depicting firefighters running into the debris of the former World Trade Center Towers.” So outrageous is this ad that it has incited criticisms from the very people Lazio was trying to associate himself with. According to an August 20 NBC.com report, both the NY Fire Department and the Police Department have demanded the video’s removal:
“The Uniformed Fire Officers Association and the NYPD’s Sergeants Benevolent Association has sent Lazio letters denouncing the use of the 9/11 footage. ‘We have always been opposed to the use of images from the attack on the World Trade Center in political advertising. Virtually every candidate for public office has honored that sentiment to date. So it was with a mix of surprise and disappointment to see your new video that seeks to capture the attention of the viewer with graphic images of Ground Zero that day,’ read a letter signed by UFOA President Alexander Hagan. ‘For someone whose argument against the mosque is that it is insensitive to those who lost loved ones on that day, it is unconscionable that he would display similar insensitivity by evoking these painful memories for his own political purposes,’ wrote SBA President Edward Mullins.”
Whether Rick Lazio can summon the courage to come in from the moral desert he’s placed himself in remains to be seen. Given the national attention his stance has garnered for him, though, and given the Tea Party competition from his rival Paladino, such an attack of conscience doesn’t appear likely. Rather, in this year when the twin specters of racism and McCarthyism seem to have risen from what we hoped was their grave, we can probably expect more of the same, if not worse. And though the politics are sad, sadder still is what is likely to result from all this—the conviction among Muslims worldwide that our so-called war on terror is really a war on them.