Ground Zero Mosque: 

A Test of Our Principles

Gary Wolfram
Issue CCLVII - August 22, 2010
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The proposal to build a community center and mosque near the site of 9-11 attack on the twin towers in New York City has drawn a lot of debate. While some recognized that those who own the property have the right to build the facility, others called upon the local, state, and federal governments to halt the building. Presidential hopefuls, such as Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, put in their two cents' worth. Ms. Palin called upon "peaceful Muslims" to repudiate the mosque, and Mr. Gingrich asserted that until there are churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia there should be no mosque near ground zero. The debate about the mosque was confused in a number of ways, but it should allow us to draw attention to what it means to be an American or to be an enemy of America.

The Economist, in its August 17th issue, pointed out that America has been less vulnerable than Europe to "home-grown jihadism," because, according to the Pew Research Center, most Muslim Americans were decidedly assimilated into American culture. A holy war is not carried out by Americans against Americans. When individuals feel they cannot be American because of religion, race, or ethnicity, then we face problems. So what is it that makes us Americans?

Unlike most other countries, America was a country founded upon ideas. We can look to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to find out what these ideas are. For example, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness -- that to secure these Rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." America is thus a country where the role of government is to secure our rights, and these rights preceded government.

Friedrich Hayek in his 1960 work, The Constitution of Liberty, asserted that what makes America unique is being the first country to set out in a written document the general principles by which we limit our government. We set forth in the Constitution the powers that the federal government has, and specify that the federal government has only those powers. As Madison declared in Federalist 45, "The powers delegated by the proposed constitution to the federal government are few and defined." The 10th Amendment further clarifies that Congress has only enumerated powers -- "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively or the people."

Hayek devotes a chapter in The Constitution of Liberty to responsibility. In his words, "A free society demands more than any other that people be held responsible for their actions." Being responsible for our actions forces us to make the best use of resources, and if we are not responsible for our actions, those who are will end up coercing us. The growth in government and decline in our freedom that we are witnessing today are in good part due to our attempts to shirk our individual responsibility and hope government will provide security for us.

But Hayek also points out that we cannot be held responsible for the actions of others. Believing that you are responsible for the actions of other members of your family, or tribe, or religion leads to conflict and hatred that destroys civil society. An American Muslim cannot be held responsible for the actions of a Saudi Muslim who attacks us, and assuming he can be is a dangerous misconception. The 9-11 attacks were carried out by people who do not believe in the principles of a free society, members of al-Qaeda, and not by the Americans who want to build a mosque in Manhattan. Our battle lies with the former and not the latter.

One becomes an American by believing in those general principles by which we agree to govern ourselves. The threat to America does not come from Americans who have the idea of building a mosque, even if the location is found to be offensive to some. The threat to America comes from within, from a lack of understanding of what the general principles are by which we govern ourselves and which preserve our freedom. We are threatened by an education system that fails to instruct our children in how limited government and a market economy lead to liberty and wealth for the masses.

There are numerous surveys that show how poorly educated the graduates of our high schools and college are in both how free markets work to efficiently produce goods and services and satisfy the needs of the mass of consumers, and how America is a country founded upon the principles of governments without arbitrary power. Rather than direct debate towards where a mosque should be built in New York City, we should be discussing how our education system is failing us in preserving the principles upon which our country was founded.

This post originally appeared in The Michigan View ( on August 20, 2010