In Lowell, there’s a debate about the future of the Pawtucket Falls Dam. There’s another debate about allowing alcohol to be served at a business adjacent to a temple. Behind the discussion are people’s feelings about the power of place, the meaning of certain special places. The concept of place is all over the news this week. Do you have the same feeling that I have about the Manhattan zoning decision involving the Islamic community center? All of a sudden this is one of those issues where you have to line up and choose your side fast. The President jumped in with a strong defense of religious freedom and then clarified his remarks to say he wasn’t getting involved in real estate decisions, basically. The usual suspects on the far conservative side are beating the issue like a big fat bass drum—against the location, of course. Joe Scarborough of Morning Joe on MSNBC said he was dismayed at the tone of remarks coming from his party, the GOP. Democrat leader Sen. Harry Reid just separated himself from the President’s position, even though the President hasn’t explicitly endorsed the proposed address. The shorthand issue name has become “the Ground Zero mosque,” even though the building would be a couple of blocks from the 9/11 WTC site. What would an acceptable distance be? Five blocks? Ten? Where does the line get drawn? And what other kinds of non-conforming activity will have to be scrutinized now? The symbolism couldn’t be more loaded. If you start to search for facts and context, you find out more about the Muslim organizers of the project, the purpose of the building (13 stories, recreational and social uses, with a prayer room, according to one report), the local background (where did the idea come from?), and so forth. In this hyper-active media age we citizens seem to be expected to take a position on hot-button issues before there’s even a chance to ask questions and think about what we think. Mayor Bloomberg of NYC today said it will be a “sad day” if the opponents of the project prevail in blocking development at the proposed site. Some of the 9/11 family survivors object to the location. They have the personal high ground. Did the project’s organizers and funders see this coming? Were they prepared for this struggle? This feels like a political hurricane that is gathering speed and power by the day.