Opinion

When fairness loses out to fear

This isn’t supposed to be how Americans behave. Or how Georgians behave, and it’s certainly not how Columbus Georgians behave.

It’s almost certainly not how most Newton County Georgians behave. But just enough of the latter have put their community in the news in a way that none of us should be proud of.

It started — as, sadly, such flaps have started elsewhere — with a Muslim congregation’s plan to locate a mosque and cemetery on a 135-acre parcel in the county, about 40 miles southeast of Atlanta.

Public outcry against the proposal (more on that presently) was such that the Newton County Commission imposed a temporary ban on building permits for places of worship. Period.

This is the lesson about freedom too many people never really seem to get: If somebody else is denied it, then none of us really enjoys it. So under the county moratorium, any plans for new churches, synagogues or temples of any and all kinds were stuck in indefinite limbo.

All because of people saying the mosque would be used to train terrorists, or that it had something to do with ISIS, or — and this came from one of the commissioners — that it would make Newton County “a prime area for the federal government to resettle refugees from the Middle East.” (Yeah, that’s how it works.)

The moratorium is scheduled to expire on Sept. 21, which might have rendered the whole thing ultimately moot. Except that the commissioners, to their credit, didn’t leave it at that but scheduled a vote for this past Tuesday that would, with majority approval, have lifted the ban and allowed the mosque plan to proceed.

That meeting was canceled, according to area authorities, because of concerns about crowd control.

The county issued an official statement that the decision to call off the meeting “was not taken without careful deliberation and consideration,” citing social media posts “evidencing hostilities in the community.”

This is all sad, disheartening and infuriating. Specifics of the social media and online posts weren’t made public; if they were cause for genuine concern, then of course public safety has to be the primary consideration. But it also means that a legitimate and important public process was derailed by intimidation.

The Covington News reported that the next regular commission meeting is scheduled for Sept. 20, the day before the ban is scheduled to expire anyway. Edward Ahmed Mitchell, Georgia chapter director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, condemned “the anti-Muslim extremists who have slandered, harassed and threatened Newton County’s commissioners over the past week,” adding that those responsible “do not represent the people of Newton County, who are as warm and welcoming as other Georgians.”

Mitchell said he expects the mosque to be built after the moratorium expires (or is lifted). It would be a satisfying ending if that could happen quietly and peacefully, without further hostility and maybe even with a little community goodwill. Because this is far from the last, or the worst, of these stories we’re going to see.

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