Let me take you back to 2002, a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, with the horror and disbelief of that terrible day still very fresh in our minds.
Now, would you believe that in November of that year, right next to the spot where 184 people lost their lives in the Pentagon, the military opened a sanctuary where Islam could be celebrated?
This is truly on sacred ground, mind you. Not two blocks away.
This prayer room is a mere 30 steps from the place where terrorists crashed the nose cone of American Airlines Flight 77 through the wall and killed Pentagon secretaries and military officers, soccer moms and Little League dads.
In this Pentagon chapel, Muslims can unroll their prayer mats once a day and give praise to Allah. On Fridays, they bring in an imam to conduct a service.
Cue the outrage: "How dare they?" "This is an insult to patriotic Americans everywhere, and especially to the families of those who died that day and the good men and women who are risking their lives for their country in the fight against terrorism!"
Oh, wait — there was no outrage. No hyperventilating by cable news anchors. No outpouring of hateful rhetoric on blogs and websites.
"Nope, never heard a word about it," folks in the Pentagon chaplain's office told me after we visited the crash site memorial and the chapel next to it. "No one has had a problem with it."
Since the prayer room's use began eight years ago, Qurans have been opened and closed hundreds of times, Islamic prayers have been whispered by the thousands. The families, friends and colleagues of those who died or were injured in the 2001 terrorist attacks have never complained to the Pentagon about the inclusion of Muslim services, officials said.
In the heart of the U.S. military machine, in a place where generals stomp around like demigods and the hallways bristle with combat-ready warriors, religious tolerance is part of what it means to be American.
The people I spoke with at the Pentagon said they were surprised at the furor over plans to build a mosque and Islamic community center near ground zero in New York City.
It's true that the chapel in the Pentagon isn't a mosque; it's designed for use by many faiths. Each week, it hosts a Catholic Mass, Protestant, Episcopal and Hindu services, a Church of Latter-day Saints Bible study, and a Jewish service and Torah study in addition to the Muslim prayers and service.
But it's worth looking at because had the establishment of Muslim services on hallowed ground in the Pentagon been framed with the same demagoguing, throat-clutching rhetoric that the debate in New York is being presented, seething fear could easily have run amok.
It didn't. And that says something about Americans at their best.
Too bad our better angels aren't on display in the New York mosque uproar.
For years, no one complained about the two mosques that operate several blocks from ground zero or the propriety of a strip club and off-track betting parlor so close to the hallowed ground where almost 3,000 people died. Have any of the folks complaining so vociferously been to that part of New York?
As we were talking recently about the 3,500 Muslim service members, one of the chaplains told me that there are plenty of U.S. military facilities across the globe that have spaces dedicated to Muslim services, not just interfaith chapels. "On bases in Iraq and so forth, we have mosques," he said. "No one has ever raised any concern about that."
And here's my question: Why should anyone?