by Howard Polikoff
I wasn’t always this politically conscious.
It’s humbling, almost depressing, to admit. I’m leading the rally momentarily, but the fact that it took this long to do it mars what I am about to accomplish.
Sometimes I feel like if I had been more aware, I would have been able to put out the fire that was engulfing this nation. Or I’d have lit the fuse that spread and sparked a revolution. Either way, there’d be a fire involved.
As I gather my thoughts and select my most patriotic garb, regret for my past inaction overwhelms. To the detriment of the nation and to my own shame, I believed expressing my love of country was enough. What else was ever needed to make the United States great? I thought my “Remember 9/11” neck tattoo, along with constant adulation for the troops, would safeguard liberty. “Our soldiers are the best people in the world—never disparage them,” I would exclaim during political repartees, dinner conversations, and when I saw the American flag during car dealership ads. Once I heard the news that awakened my true activism, these symbolic gestures seemed merely that—symbolic.
The news was in the local paper, which someone eventually told me about. The Muslims wanted to dispirit those most devastated by terrorists. They got the zoning permits, and were planning to build a prayer center. A mosque, right in my hometown of Centerville, Georgia. 911 miles away from Ground Zero.
In most any circumstance, I would lovingly support the right of Muslims to worship their god. Our God teaches love and compassion, which forbids afflicting our most grief-stricken Americans’ emotions.
I’m as tolerant as they come. I’ve defended Islam to my less centered friends, even though they in turn accused me of being a Muslim myself. I rejected their calls as impractical or wrong (in practice). Legislation to make it harder for Muslims to pray? It seemed spiteful, and they wouldn’t need state assistance to tell them which way faced Mecca. Outlawing pregnant Muslims giving birth on 9/11? For arranged C-Sections, maybe, but legislating a woman’s body should be limited to the who/what/where/why, not the when. Interning all Muslims for six years while we tested their loyalty and made sure no terror ties existed? Who would you have carry that out, the government? We heartily laughed at the bureaucratic nightmare— “It would probably take twelve years!” got the most bellowing response—and moved on. Even if feasible, I argued, these overly patriotic (an oxymoron, we agreed) ideas went against our constitution’s religious protections. Allowing free exercise of faith is what makes this country great.
I instantly opposed the construction, as if by instinct, days before I discovered the mosque’s impermissible distance to the attack site. The distance matched the precise date where terrorists tried to instill us with blind, panicky fear; prohibiting the mosque would ensure no Muslim could do that to us again. My instinct, the same force that moved my family to Centreville and solely informs my worldview, told me the Islamic worshipping site was nefarious, unseemly.
The “Nine-Eleven [Miles] Centerville Mosque,” as I called it, begged unavoidable questions that required deep thought. With the volume for the football game on low, I pondered them all during the two-minute warning. Must the builders be so obtuse? Why here? Why not move the mosque, say, four towns over, safely removed from the victim-haunting proximity? Was it coincidence that they chose a site this exact number of miles away (that is, assuming you took the I-80 West and I-75 South route, which is longer than the quicker I-81 South path but has fewer tolls)? My open mind would play Devil’s advocate with these issues, but this only confirmed the evilness of the mosque’s plan.
I had to find the truth. If an attack was planned from this mosque, I reasoned, there would be as much blood on my hands as on the hands of each and every Muslim in the world. My plan, like all political issues, was simple: I would raise awareness of the Islamists’ provocative prayer center, building enough political pressure to thwart the construction.
Building such “freedom-support”—I like prefixing words with “freedom,” because it shows my cause’s good—against the mosque was an uphill battle. Thank God, Jesus, Mary, The Holy Ghost, Heaven and Baby Jesus for talk radio. Where else can an ordinary citizen with only a phone speak to millions, free from any elite-imposed social, economic, or credibility standards? Facts, opinion, rumors and highly suggestive innuendo are instantaneously spread. And it sounds like a man is talking right from under the dashboard! Nowhere is the First Amendment purer than in this medium. If civil rights groups—a.k.a., Big Constitution—spent just one hour hearing AM broadcasts, I bet they’d realize talk radio is the real hallmark of free speech.
The man on the AM radio station I leave on has for years been a guiding voice regarding the people—by name and by vaguely-alluded to ethnicity—who are responsible for our country’s woes. At first the host didn’t quite understand what I was getting at. Though my rhetoric didn’t match the oratory of most respected radio callers, the host agreed with my emotion, and to his credit, he turned my mealy-mouthed rambling into a thoughtfully vitriolic soliloquy. He even tied it together to other social issues, and the Flat Tax.
The radio gave me access to the masses, but I also wanted an ally who could unite people under undeniable, universally-accepted truths and values. Thankfully, my Baptist minister agreed with me about this issue. I had to jog his memory when I first met with him, but he eventually put the name with the face and we talked about old times. We spoke about things personal and spiritual, and he too confided to me unease over the mosque. “Minister Cutler,” I said solemnly, “with your help, we can do right by the heroes of September’s tragedy. Minister Cutler, I humbly ask that we work together, using the great power our beloved country gives us for religious speech, and bring this fight to your congregation’s attention.” Minister Fulver gracefully reminded me of his true surname, and agreed it was a worthy and important battle.
It’s a point in my life I’ll carry with pride forever. I can vividly recite just about every detail of that conversation in his office, from the navy blue coffee mug atop his desk, to the spare dress shoes in the corner, to the Minister’s clenched fist and the self-control that just barely kept him from swearing at the mention of the Muslims. Ironically, his saying the mosque was inappropriate because of its 911 miles’ distance is the one conversation detail that escapes my memory.
The following Sunday, Minister Fulver delivered a sermon about the dire threat the mosque posed. It was our Christian duty, he said, to respond to the menace with civic engagement. Then, as we had agreed, he announced that I would be organizing a march of concerned citizens, encouraging his church to go. I like to think the moment he said this was the precise moment I woke up in my pew; my lack of a hangover seemed miraculous itself, a sign that last night’s bender, my sleeping-in, and this rally were meant to be. Minister Fulver’s divine pronouncements peaked as he righteously shouted that our upcoming actions affected not only our safety in this world, but also “God’s judgment for what you’ve given him afterwards.” The silence could have lasted for eons, if he hadn’t immediately segued into passing the collection plate. This sermon, along with regular radio calls discussing the rally, put the plan in motion.
The protestors’ energy and passion was unforgettable. For the first twenty minutes of our first meeting, we said prayers, recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and sang several American patriotic songs. A dozen people brought flags. Several garishly wore red, white, and blue, and another three men came dressed as Founding Fathers. The enthusiasm on this day, where we met at a coffee shop to plan the rally in two weeks, nearly brought a tear to my eye.
After an encore of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” I banged the gavel to begin official business. We discussed various logistics we had to plan—where to meet, where to park, what to bring. At one point, a debate emerged as to whether the rally could be more inclusive by incorporating anti-gay protests and other causes. We resolved to stick to the mosque, but over the time new controversies rose. The meeting started to devolve into one big shouting contest, which threatened the actual shouting contest planned for later. I repeatedly banged on my gavel, but the debate’s intensity remained. Anticipating our intensity, I had a secret weapon. Removing my second gavel, I banged both simultaneously.
I commanded the room from that moment on. Once I led, all that could be heard was my voice and the shop’s speakers playing a rock song about breakfast at Tiffany’s. We put aside our differences, and peacefully united in a way so beautiful it almost made me question the worthiness of war. Rallying through another Pledge of Allegiance and “God Bless America,” we came into agreement and adjourned with our plan in place.
The march, now only hours away, was always meant to be a calm exercise of informed citizens—at no point did I consider advocating violence. I looked to other peoples’ heroes—to Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy, and the bald Indian. They knew victory was to be achieved by first demonstrating, giving it one peaceful attempt before energetically gathering a mob and instructing them with a long-ago prepared list of targets, tactics, and creative sources for weaponry. And like them, I realized that physical force would make my cause as futile as the jihadists’ mission, even if it was still superior.
Here we are. The time is now. Pursuing this noble fight has put a righteous wind at my back. Sins of the past that I had always lacked remorse for were suddenly recalled, then instantaneously lifted. I never thought I was a flawed Christian, and once I finally realized I was, God’s grace already made me whole and righteous again.
Ready to go, I say a prayer. I attach my crucifix, which clanks against the whistle I’ll be using to drown out remarks from any counter-protest. I pick up my keys, my flag, and my gun, then take a look in the mirror. In moments like these, it’s important to look at oneself. America is all over me. My tattoo, modeled after the eagle on the Department of Homeland Security logo (I replaced the effete olive branch the eagle carries in the original logo with arrows), is prominent. My attire is exclusively red, white and blue, sans the green tie covering my shirt’s chili stain. My other tie, the one with red, white, and blue stripes and stars, would be more apropos, but it shares my white shirt’s chill-stained fate.
It all comes together as I enter my truck. Looking at my vanity plate, “FREEDUM,” chokes me up (“FREEDOM” and “FREED0M” were taken). I push the burger wrappers on my seat onto the floor, where they join their brethren. The engine starts, and the AM station plays. My Jesus chain hangs off the rear-view mirror. I take one last look in the rear-view mirror, and notice undiscovered chili residue on my chin. Wiping it off puts a smile on my face. That’s just the beginning of the cleaning that starts today.