Stevens: Rethink opposition to NYC mosque

Paul Paul Stevens
Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens addresses the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation luncheon in Washington on Thursday.Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
/ Source: NBC News

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens drew on his own thoughts about the Japanese in the aftermath of World War II to say that New Yorkers should be more tolerant of the plan to build an Islamic center near ground zero in New York.

"Guilt by association is unfair," he said.

In a speech Thursday to the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation in Washington, he recalled his service in Pearl Harbor during the war as an intelligence analyst working with codes. When he returned there in 1994, he said, he had an emotional response to seeing Japanese tourists visiting the USS Arizona memorial.

"Those people don't really belong here," he said he remembered thinking. "We won the war, they lost it. We shouldn't allow them to celebrate their attack on Pearl Harbor, even if it was one of their greatest victories."

But he said he quickly realized that Japanese visitors would have a range of emotions, remembering relatives who died during the war or thinking about the horrors of war.

"I suspect that many New Yorkers who lost friends or relatives as a result of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11 may have reacted to the news that Muslims are planning to erect a mosque or a religious center in the neighborhood much as I reacted to the sight of the Japanese tourists on the Arizona," he said.

But Stevens, 90, said New Yorkers may have had second thoughts, as he did.

"The Japanese tourists were not responsible for what some of their countrymen did decades ago; the Muslims planning to build the mosque are not responsible for what an entirely different group of Muslims did on 9/11," he said.

Stevens noted that the National Japanese American Memorial recognizes the injustice of the internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent during the war.

He called that "a powerful reminder of the fact that ignorance — that is to say, fear of the unknown — is the source of most invidious prejudice."