National Public Radio fired its longtime news analyst Juan Williams this week for saying something that many Americans feel. Williams, who also works as a Fox News Channel contributor (as I do), told FNC host Bill O'Reilly that when he gets on an airplane and sees someone in Muslim garb, he gets "nervous."
Williams prefaced his remarks by reminding viewers that he had written several books about the civil rights movement. "I'm not a bigot," he said, noting that his uneasiness has a basis in fact. He recalled the would-be Times Square bomber's words last week when he was sentenced to life in prison for trying to detonate a bomb. "The war with Muslims is just beginning," Williams paraphrased.
But Faisal Shahzad's actual statement was far more chilling. Shahzad warned those in the courtroom: "Brace yourself, because the war with Muslims has just begun. Consider me the first droplet of the blood that will follow." And Shahzad's tirade is only the latest in a long string of invectives by those who claim to speak for Islam.
Such vile threats cannot help but provoke fear, and Williams' comments reminded me of a similar moment of candor by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
In 1996, Jackson said: "There is nothing more painful to me ... than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery (and) then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved." Was Jackson a bigot, or was he just reflecting the reality that young black men commit a disproportionate share of violent crimes and that even other black men sometimes react in fear because of that?
Our brains are hard-wired to generalize -- and we do so instinctively when we feel threatened. It's crucial to our ability to survive. Of course, it is also the biological basis for prejudice, which we try to temper with rational discernment. We know that even if all recent terrorist attacks against Americans have been committed by Muslims -- from 9/11 to the Fort Hood massacre to the failed plots by Shahzad and others -- that does not by any means suggest that all Muslims are terrorists. But our reason cannot always prevent us from feeling frightened. What we do about our fear is what matters.
For prejudice to become discrimination requires action. It would have been one thing for Williams to have refused to get on a plane because someone was dressed in religious garb or, worse, to have tried to have the person removed for no other reason than his or her display of faith. But all Williams did was talk about his anxiety. Unfortunately, NPR chose to punish Williams for admitting his fear. That doesn't solve anything. He still might not have been fired if the organized grievance industry hadn't set in motion a campaign to have him removed, however.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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