Oct/Nov 2010 and#149; Salon

Some Blacklisted Geese and a Mosque on Sacred Ground

by Thomas J. Hubschman

The city of New York recently announced a plan to exterminate the geese living in nearby Prospect Park. There's a large natural lake there, dredged out by the glacier when it receded from these parts way back when. On my side of the lake is a spine of high land, almost the highest in the city, from which the terrain by the lake ascends gradually. In the other direction, westward, the land slopes down at about the same angle. From the front windows of my apartment I can see New York Bay as well as the cranes and other industrial paraphernalia of New Jersey and even the Statue of Liberty, all well below me. From that point, the edge of the continent, it's 3000 miles before you come to open sea again.

My apartment faces south more or less. Beyond the trees and roofs of single-family homes and low-rise apartment buildings lies a cemetery that occupies hundreds of acres, not the usual open land devoted to the dead but a place almost as heavily wooded as the big park just to my north. I might be looking out on the edge of a forest occupied by tall, old-growth oaks and other species. I can see no further than that, except in winter when the bare trees allow glimpses of the lights of the Verrazano Bridge several miles away.

The geese used to fly by on their way someplace to the west and then back again just before dark, sometimes after dark, as if something important had delayed them, some bit of work too urgent to postpone till morning. They were as regular as any other bunch of commuters. They made a lot of noise as they passed by, the usual goose honk, an exotic intrusion of nature into the hum of the nearby expressway. They flew in tight formation, not the rigid formation of F-17s but undulating one way or the other as a bird in the second or third position of the "V" veered slightly off course, causing the bird behind to follow and the bird behind that to do the same, until the forward bird adjusted and those behind followed suit. The visual effect was as graceful as a breeze passing over a tree in full leaf.

I rarely visited the geese—there were 60, if the kill count represents the total number—at their home in and around the lake. My part of the park is about a mile away, meadow and rolling ground. The terrain where the lake lies is flat all the way to Coney Island and the sea (the "coneys," a species of hare, which gave the island its name, have long since been extinct). It's as if a giant backhoe had dragged the land level, leaving nary a rise high enough to roll a marble off—terminal moraine, I believe it's called in geological lingo.

I don't know where the geese came from or when they arrived. I suspect they, like many of my human neighbors, were recent migrants. I remember ducks living in the park as long ago as the 1970s. But they make their home on a smaller lake, a pond really, fed by a stream that gushes out of a large underground aquifer. The ducks also commute, but I was less conscious of them, and they rarely pass through the broad expanse of sky visible from my apartment. I only took note of them the way I notice airplanes making their approach to LaGuardia Airport thirty miles to the north.

It's the same big sky that allows me to see Venus blazing in the early evening as well as a host of other stars, the brightest at least, and of course the moon, which moves across that part of the heavens with a different face every night. If I want to watch it rise, huge and orange, I have only to walk to a nearby intersection to view it hanging low on the horizon above Queens. Needless to say, the sun follows the same route, setting well to the west in summer behind those New Jersey industrial parks, then each night a bit more southerly until in the dead of winter it drops as if exhausted behind a clump of trees in the cemetery.

At that time of year we get direct sunlight all afternoon. By Thanksgiving it reaches the wall behind the dining table at the back end of our living room. You can't see for the brightness. At the opposite end of the year, the hottest and longest days, sunlight barely crosses the windowsill, though we still have to draw curtains to reflect the heat away. The apartments below us are shaded by a tall oak tree planted in 1983. But those lower apartments get the same welcome sunlight in winter when the tree branches are bare.

Now the geese are gone, gassed to death, if the newspaper accounts are to be believed. I don't know if the city rounded them up and put them in a portable container and killed them all at once or if they did the job one at a time. I don't want to know. I realize animal welfare organizations gas animals all the time, the ones nobody has adopted or is likely to. Gassing unwanted animals is considered a humane way of doing away with them, though of course not with human beings, where the preferred method is lethal injection.

I didn't read far enough into the article to find out why the geese were going to be killed. I assume it's because they were doing some kind of damage to the lake or surrounding land. I remember how geese made a mess of a golf course I once played on. It was as if a flock of homeless people had set up camp with no facilities but the fairways to take care of their basic necessities. I don't suppose the board of directors for that golf course would have issued an order to gas a crowd of homeless humans, though I suspect some might have wanted to.

Geese aren't people, after all. Whatever they think or feel, they aren't people. I've read that steers waiting on line to be slaughtered become so distraught that their legs give way from the terror they experience at what is happening further up on the line. But cattle aren't people either. Neither are pigs or chickens. Certainly not chickens, though they say pigs are so close to us genetically you would have trouble telling one from the other if you had a slab of each fried up with your sunnyside-overs.

Meanwhile, as I write this, a "controversy" is in full swing whether a "mosque" should be built near the footprint of "ground zero," site of the former World Trade Center. I put those words in quotes because their use defines the ground of the discussions surrounding the subject. "Controversy" implies a persistent if honest difference of opinion, though the word frequently masks deep-seated passions rooted in prejudice or at least impatience with rational examination. In this case there's very little rational discourse going on that I can see, although most of the participants try hard to maintain a veneer of reasonableness (I'm excluding professional agitators like Newt Gingrich). Nobody wants to come across as a bigot, God forbid, or desecrator of Sacred Ground, or appear to be insensitive to the families of those who died in the 9/11 attacks.

But the bigotry, generated by fear, is there nonetheless. Even in the best people, the ones whose instincts are reliably on the side of the persecuted and maligned. None of these good people want to deprive anyone of their rights as Americans. They agree that anyone should be able to do what they are legally entitled to do anytime and anywhere. These good people express their opposition to the "mosque" (more like a prayer room, just a small part of a large community center modeled openly on the 92nd Street YMHA, a New York Jewish cultural institution that hosts literary events and other activities—I saw and heard Jorge Luis Borges speak there) in words not of opposition to the thing itself but to a lack of "prudence" in siting it at that location. (That site is not, as the less well-intentioned would have us believe, on the footprint of the twin towers but in a building a couple blocks away formerly occupied by a discount retail clothing store.)

These good people say they have no objection to the "mosque" even if it is built across the street from the still empty ground where the World Trade Center stood. Their view is that putting it so close to that location, for the very reasons that it has engendered so much "controversy," is just not a good idea, should be reconsidered, is imprudent.

These well-wishers-with-reservations will not be found among those who demonstrated against the proposed Islamic Center recently. They will not consciously give comfort and support to anyone who engages in Muslim-bashing or even less aggressive forms of Islamophobia. Many of them remember when, either personally or historically, their own religion was under attack or was the object of overt prejudice. But the present situation is nonetheless, for them, obviously different.

I remember the good people who disapproved of McCarthyism, the campaign in the 1950s that used fear, not so much of the thing itself—Communism—but implications of disloyalty, even treachery, that any association with the American Communist Party implied, with all the social consequences that involved: disgrace, loss of employment, "blacklisting." Those good people believed in the right of anyone to hold and exercise whatever legal political view they chose. But they also feared Communism, a kind of "evil empire" that wanted to destroy our freedoms the way a wolf wants to kill and eat a lamb.

Those good people remained silent when other Americans were being deprived of their livelihood or even sent to jail for being present or former suspected members of the Communist Party. Their silence was enough to empower those who had no qualms about acting against the enemy within and the fellow travelers who had supposedly infiltrated the deepest parts of our government.

A bit later, in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement was in full swing and had already made great strides, I heard a radio interview with a minister who had been part of that struggle. When asked his opinion about women's rights, he replied that the Bible made it clear women are to be subservient to men, and if that was the word of God, he was not about to gainsay It. When the host asked about homosexual rights the minister stated categorically that such an idea was out of the question.

Presumably that minister would have personally known Southern whites of good will as well as blacks who believed that "Negroes" should go slow, not confront the system head-on, be prudent, not precipitate a confrontation. Those good people knew how deep ran the passions of the racists among them and didn't want to see turmoil or something worse visited on the victims of the current system or on good people like themselves who wanted to see things change for the better.

Fannie Lou Hamer, the woman who famously refused not to sit in the back of the bus, was criticized by the men working in the civil rights movement both for her protest and for her subsequent campaign to conduct a bus boycott—until, of course, it was successful.

Good people now are saying the siting of a "mosque" so close to the former World Trade Center is not about a civil or legal right, it's about prudence and good judgment. It's about not inflaming the passions of those who would be "offended" by the presence of an Islamic center within the shadow of the sacred ground where 3000 human lives were lost.

Jim Crowe needed more than beefy straight-from-central-casting cops like "Bull" Connor and his police dogs to sustain it. It needed the tacit support of good people, of all colors, who believed that gradualism was the best way to change things and counseled that confrontation was to be avoided in favor of prudence. A similar message was preached to the blacks of South Africa and was rejected by the African National Congress, though supported by democracies like the US and the UK.

It's hard to remember, even for those who were alive at the time, how attractive the sermon of gradualism (not to be confused with Martin Luther King's nonviolence), how instinctively true and right, that attitude seemed to good people at the time. How much prudence, not sticking one's neck out or objecting in an "offensive" way, seemed a good idea, whether the issue has been racial separation, the threat of communism or just the offense given to those who don't want the community they live in to be disturbed.

In the meantime, the legitimacy of this "controversy" has given a lot of people permission to express their fear and disdain for Muslims without the restraint they formally exercised. Why else would the construction of mosques in such far afield places as Staten Island and Kansas be under attack? Or are they also in the shadow of "sacred ground"? Is all of America "sacred ground" when it comes to Muslims? Should we be Islam-rein, free of an insidious religion that threatens to eat away at the heart of our nation the way Communism and the civil rights movement were supposed to be doing? (Many people believed the civil rights movement was the work of communists.)

It's only in retrospect we realize the danger of the complicity inherent in silence and advocating "prudence," dangerous not just for those who suffer from passive concurrence with the status quo, but in the long run for ourselves and the very friends, neighbors and progeny we hope to protect by not standing up to the ill-informed and the ill-intentioned among us.


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