I probably should not be surprised the Juan Williams story got as big as it did.
There are, after all, few topics in public life more dangerous than race and culture. And the fact that the liberal-leaning National Public Radio fired Williams for comments made on Fox News about that topic provides irresistible ammunition for conservatives who see liberals as hypocritical on matters of free speech.
The surprise, I guess, would’ve been if the story had been allowed to quietly die.
Williams got in trouble for his response to a question from Fox’s Bill O’Reilly about whether the nation faces “a Muslim dilemma.” Said O’Reilly, “The cold truth is that in the world today jihad, aided and abetted by some Muslim nations, is the biggest threat on the planet.”
Williams agreed. “I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”
Two days later, he was informed — by phone — that his years of service at NPR had come to an end.
I happen to think O’Reilly was mostly right. The attempt by some — the qualifier is important — Islamic nations and groups to intimidate and destabilize the rest of the world is, if not “the biggest threat on the planet” (North Korea and global warming might have something to say about that), certainly in the top three. And no, nothing in that observation is inconsistent with the demand that the vast majority of peaceful Muslims be left alone to worship and live as they see fit.
I also think Williams was mostly wrong. Seems to me your average terrorist is unlikely to dress in a way that screams Muslim. I’m thinking T-shirt, ball cap and jeans. He may not have a Middle Eastern appearance. He may not even be a he.
That said, my concern isn’t whether the comments were right or wrong, but whether they were inbounds, whether they crossed that subjective but critical line between fair commentary and rank bigotry. I don’t believe they did, especially given that Williams went on to decry the tendency to smear all Muslims with the misdeeds of a few. That context suggests his intent was to question — not justify — his own paranoia.
And in firing him, NPR shows not the commitment to journalistic guidelines it has cited, but rather, a capacity for hair-trigger response. There’s a lot of that going around.
For every Don Imus, Rick Sanchez or Mel Gibson who deserved the censure and sanction their words brought down, we lately seem to have a Juan Williams, a Shirley Sherrod or a Harry Reid whose crime is not what they said but “that” they said and that someone felt no obligation to listen before passing judgment. Indeed, in matters of racial and cultural difference, some of us seem to feel it a sin even to acknowledge the existence thereof.
Joe Biden was pilloried in many forums, including this one, for seeming to call Barack Obama the first black presidential candidate “who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Except that if you actually “listen” to what he said — most transcripts mis-edited the quote — it becomes clear he was making another point entirely.
There’s a moral to that experience: Few issues are more in need of serious discussion than race and culture. And while we should be vigilant against those who would drag that discussion into the mire of bigotry, we also owe people the courtesy of listening to what they’ve said before judging it. After all, a subjective line is still a line.
And if you keep fooling around with a hair trigger, sooner or later, someone is going to get hurt.
— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com. firstname.lastname@example.org