Bay Ridge’s freshman Democratic Rep. Mike McMahon journeyed to our Downtown offices to seek our endorsement in his quest for re-election. It went pretty well — except for some fireworks between McMahon and Editor Gersh Kuntzman over McMahon’s decidedly un-Democratic opposition to the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” in Lower Manhattan. Kuntzman apparently thought he was lobbing a softball, but later found himself battling McMahon’s vision of American pluralism. Here’s the full transcript of the interview.
Q: By the way, where are you on this so-called “Ground Zero mosque”?
A: It’s not in my district, and under our fundamentals of Constitutional law, there is a right to a house of worship wherever it’s legal under the zoning laws, but I don’t think it’s the right thing to do because it tears at the heart of so many people who lost loved ones on that day. They call me up and they say, “Mike, you’ve been with me through this whole thing, can you find a better location?” And that is the deciding factor for me. If so many people who lost loved ones don’t want it there, that should be taken into consideration. To me, it’s an act of compassion towards those victims. that’s the most important point, not one that says, “We have the right to do it and we feel since it makes sense for us, we should do it.” That’s not the right way to go.
Q: You make that sound so reasonable, but your position is wrong on the law. And it puts you on the side with some very intolerant people.
A: I’m not taking this position because of the anti-immigrant or the anti-Muslim groups are on that side. I’m taking it because the people who lost their children, my friend Nelly Brzezinski lost her son and she said to me, “Please don’t support that, Congressman, because I lost my son there. This is very painful to me. They’re opening wounds.” I don’t know why anyone thinks it’s a good idea to reopen these wounds for these people. It’s crazy.
Q: Crazy? It’s our Constitution. It’s the most noble document in our nation’s history. At the end of the day, it’s all we have.
A: With due respect, I don’t care what you think.
Q: It’s not what I think, it’s the law.
A: I care what the victims of 9-11 think.
Q: There are a lot fewer of them than there are people who believe in upholding the Constitution and our other big principles.
A: That’s fine. I’m not saying that it’s unconstitutional. I’m saying that it opens wounds for victims who have been victimized already and they feel like they’re being victimized again and for that reason, it should be moved to a place that does not do that for them. That’s it. I come from Staten Island, New York. Ten percent of the people killed that day, came from Staten Island. One third of the firefighters. Guys who I grew up with and coached Little League with. And their families and their wives look at me and say, “Mike, just do what you can. We just don’t want to deal with it. We don’t even want reporters to ask us what we think of it.” They want to be left alone. They don’t even want to think about it. They want to get on with their lives and I think they’re entitled to that. I don’t care who it is, if someone is doing something that is offensive to those people. It’s like the people who protest at a warrior’s funeral. Someone comes back from Iraq or Afghanistan and someone is protesting. Do they have the right? Yes, but these people just lost their son or daughter. They don’t deserve that.
Q: There are a lot of things that are distasteful, but fortunately we have the Constitution to protect it.
A: You can have constitutional rights and taste. If it goes to court, the courts will hold it up. If you think that’s appropriate, fine. As I said, the right is there, but I don’t think the appropriateness is there. And I don’t think you send any message other than this is a country where we have rights, but even when we exercise those rights, we should be mindful of the affects of that on other people. Even though we have freedom of speech, it doesn’t mean that you can take your DJ equipment and put it on your front lawn because your neighbor has a right to peace and quiet.
Q: Well, there are time and manner restrictions on free speech, as you know.
A: You’re not going to convince me and I’m not going to convince you.
Q: I’m not trying to convince you. I don’t need to convince you because I’m right on the law.
A: Let’s go to the next issue.
Q: I brought it up because it’s a test of where people are on free speech and freedom of religion. If someone was opening a church at that location, no one would have said anything. And if someone was opening a strip club at that location, nobody would have said anything, but, oh, it’s the Muslims!
A: The people who I know who lost loved ones find it upsetting and would prefer the discussion wasn’t being held. That’s what I’m saying. I’ve answered your question. I do not say it is unconstitutional. I do not say that they don’t have the right. I say that out of the deference of people it upsets because of that, that alone says to me that they should not do it. I wouldn’t do it. I don’t want to upset people unnecessarily when I can find another way. That’s what I think.
Q: Fortunately for you, your opponent, Michael Grimm, feels the same way, so our endorsement won’t hinge on this.