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On the eve of 9/11, President Obama shares a message on unity

Saturday, September 11, 2010; A16

AT THE CONCLUSION of a long -- not that we're complaining! -- and sometimes dry news conference Friday, President Obama delivered an impassioned and timely reminder of some important American values.

He was responding to a question about construction of a proposed mosque near the site of the World Trade Center in New York, which terrorists destroyed nine years ago Saturday. We were critical of Mr. Obama when he defended the constitutional right to build the mosque one day and then, having triggered a political backlash, backed away the next, stressing that he hadn't come out for or against building the mosque.

In his news conference, he was asked to comment on the wisdom, as opposed to the constitutionality, of the project. And, to be honest, he once again did not give a clear yes or no. What he did offer, though, rose above the specific question. With the country focused on division, on angry charges and countercharges about mosque-building and Koran-burning, Mr. Obama reminded Americans of why anti-Muslim -- and, by extension, anti-anybody -- prejudice is so un-American.

He started, again, with the fundamental constitutional principle at stake near Ground Zero. "[T]his country stands for the proposition that all men and women are created equal; that they have certain inalienable rights -- one of those inalienable rights is to practice their religion freely," he said. "And what that means is that if you could build a church on a site, you could build a synagogue on a site; if you could build a Hindu temple on a site, then you should be able to build a mosque on the site."

Mr. Obama then recognized the pain of families who lost loved ones in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "But I go back to what I said earlier: We are not at war against Islam," he said. "We are at war against terrorist organizations that have distorted Islam or falsely used the banner of Islam to engage in their destructive acts." Failing to make that distinction, the president said, hurts America's ability to fight terrorists.

But failing to make the distinction isn't just a national security problem; it's a betrayal of what this country aspires to be. And since Mr. Obama made that point as persuasively as it could be made, we thought we would just get out of his way and reprint some of what he said:

"The other reason it's important for us to remember that is because we've got millions of Muslim Americans, our fellow citizens, in this country. They're going to school with our kids. They're our neighbors. They're our friends. They're our coworkers. And when we start acting as if their religion is somehow offensive, what are we saying to them?

"I've got Muslims who are fighting in Afghanistan in the uniform of the United States armed services. They're out there putting their lives on the line for us. And we've got to make sure that we are crystal-clear for our sakes and their sakes [that] they are Americans and we honor their service. And part of honoring their service is making sure that they understand that we don't differentiate between them and us. It's just us.

"And that is a principle that I think is going to be very important for us to sustain. And I think tomorrow" -- meaning Sept. 11 -- "is an excellent time for us to reflect on that."

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