Searching for Atticus Finch

In 2003, the American Film Institute named Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird as the top movie hero of all time, ahead of such stalwarts as James Bond and Indiana Jones. Curious choice, I thought at the time, and quickly forgot about it. In recent weeks, I have been pondering the Finch selection more and more. And it’s no mystery why it’s come to mind.

The furor regarding the “Ground Zero Mosque”has grown increasingly frightening. Newt Gingrich equated building this mosque to letting Nazis put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum. He and others also compared it to building a Japanese center at Pearl Harbor. Several days ago a mob protesting the mosque shouted at a man wearing an Islamic style skullcap. The fact that this man was not actually Muslim was irrelevant; he just happened to be a convenient target for the mob’s hatred. Now a gubernatorial candidate in New York is calling for an investigation into the mosque’s financing.

The mob shouting at the “Muslim” brought to mind a pivotal moment in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch, a lawyer in a small Alabama town, is defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of molesting a white woman. This is rural Jim Crow Alabama in the 1930s, and the mere accusation against a black man is proof of guilt to most of the white community. Not content to wait for the trial, a white mob forms to lynch Robinson. An unarmed Atticus, who was with Tom at the time, would have had every reason to leave, but he doesn’t. He holds his ground until the mob leaves. Later, in court, Atticus proves that Tom could not have committed the crime. Unfortunately, the evidence does not matter to the all white jury.

On the surface, equating the To Kill a Mockingbird story to current events would be a stretch. Thankfully, with the mosque debate there’s no talk of anyone being lynched or not receiving a fair trial. But racism and hate are relative to their times. In the 1930s South, lynchings were commonplace. In fact, attempts to pass an anti-lynching law were defeated in the U.S. Congress through the 1930s. And it was much later before black people could serve on juries in the South or receive anything resembling a fair trial.

Over the years, racism and bigotry grew more subtle. While overt segregation may have dissipated, what remained were unspoken “gentlemen’s agreements” banning blacks, non-whites and other minorities from joining certain colleges, organizations, professions and communities. Eventually black people were allowed to move into certain areas, only for them to find that the whites had moved away.

In this century prejudice has changed again, largely due to the tragedy of 9/11. While it was a specific radical Islamic sect, Al-Qaeda, that carried out the attack, too many of us believe that all Muslims are guilty, or, at the very least, are suspicious. Sure, they can build a mosque, just not there, many people say, as if location was really the only issue. Indeed, protests have broken out not only near Ground Zero, but near proposed mosque sites all over the US.

What would Atticus Finch say if he were here? Perhaps he would point out that, as with Tom Robinson, the facts don’t support the fears. First of all, the mosque would not be at Ground Zero but a couple of blocks away. The World Trade Center site is hallowed ground, but is the whole neighborhood? According to Time magazine, there are “are two strip clubs that sit within a block of Ground Zero, but are not seen as a threat to the land's hallowed nature.” There’s also peep shows and an off-track betting house nearby. The proposed site itself was previously occupied not by the Twin Towers but by the Burlington Coat Factory.

More importantly, there is no evidence linking the group planning the Cordoba Initiative's Park51 project (an Islamic community center including a mosque but also having many other features, including a swimming pool), with any terrorist organization. In fact, the mosque’s imam, while hardly perfect, has often spoken out against terrorism and radical Islamic factions. Finally, there is already a mosque in the neighborhood, which has existed without incident and certainly without causing insult to the families of those who died on 9/11.

The specific details, as important as they are, are not the full measure of the case here, just as they weren’t for Atticus Finch. To Atticus, just as critical was Tom Robinson’s right to a fair trial. As he put it: “In this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system - that's no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality!” Atticus believed in Tom Robinson’s rights as an American and as a human being. To him those rights did not vanish because Tom was unpopular or because he was different. To Atticus it did not matter that his own community, including his friends and neighbors, were against him. What mattered to him was the Constitution, justice, and basic fairness. In another scene, he told his daughter, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Those words are sorely needed now.

While the current situation is far different from what Atticus Finch faced, his principles are just as relevant. If the rights delineated in the Constitution are to mean anything, they must apply to everyone, not just people we like or people who are like us. They must apply to all areas of America, not just places some think are suitable. They must apply even when times are difficult. They must apply even when they fly in the face of popular opinion. A friend of mine said it best: “Either we believe in freedom of religion or we don’t.” There’s no sometimes here.

In heated times, when we are afraid, it’s easy to lose sight of who we are and what values America holds sacred. One clear example is forcing Japanese-Americans into internment camps during World War II, but there are many other instances. Our country was founded in part by settlers looking to avoid religious persecution. The freedom to practice religion freely helped draw Catholics, Jews, and yes, Muslims to America. In many ways this freedom has been strengthened as legal discrimination has dissipated. But during a crisis, it’s all too easy to cower back in fear and to let paranoia trump justice and fairness. That’s when some Americans target other Americans whose only crime is sharing the same religion as the 9/11 terrorists. It’s times like these when I wish someone like Atticus Finch could remind us of what we should be standing for.

Obviously my wish will go unfulfilled. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Gregory Peck’s stout, resolute portrayal of Atticus made it clear to audiences that he was on the side of truth and justice. While the other characters in the movie may doubt Atticus, we sitting at home or in the theater cannot doubt Peck’s moral authority.

Real life, as always, is more complicated. There are those speaking out, whether it's reporters spotlighting how the Taliban is using the resistance to the mosque as a recruiting tool, or a few politicians, such as Jerrold Nadler and Orrin Hatch, willing to buck public sentiment. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been an unwavering advocate for the Park 51 project. Still, there’s no one out there with the force or moral clarity of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. I suppose that’s the tough part. It can’t be one man speaking up for the Constitution, be it the right to due process or the right to religious freedom. It must be all of us. The principles and convictions of Atticus Finch must exist not just on the screen but in our hearts, and, more importantly, in our actions.

Adam Spector
September 1, 2010

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