Civil Liberties

Juan Gone


Here's a Washington Post headline for you: "NPR fires Juan Williams over anti-Muslim remarks." What were the "anti-Muslim remarks" in question? These:

"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," he said. "But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

Williams then brought up a statement made in a New York courtroom this month by Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani American who pleaded guilty to trying to detonate a bomb in Times Square and was sentenced to life in prison.

"He said the war with Muslims, America's war is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don't think there's any way to get away from these facts," Williams said.

That latter half cannot be the objectionable bit, so we're left with this 21st century ask-the-ethicist puzzler: Is it now "anti-Muslim" to admit your anxiety when seeing an Orthodox-looking Muslim on Islamic terrorists' most infamous weapon of mass murder? I think if you stated that most Muslims are a threat (a much more declarative formulation than "I get worried" about "people who are in Muslim garb"), or that all Muslims should be singled out for special scrutiny, or that our basic policy problem is with Muslims, then you might be getting warmer. But later in the O'Reilly interview, Williams specifically repudiated all three of those sentiments:

WILLIAMS: Wait a second though, wait, hold on, because if you said Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals, very obnoxious, you don't say first and foremost, we got a problem with Christians. That's crazy.

Later, in a crosstalk-heavy exchange about Germany's Muslim integration issues, there was this:

O'REILLY: Juan, who is posing a problem in Germany? Is it the Muslims who have come there or the Germans? […] Who's causing the problem?

WILLIAMS: I think—I think—no, no, wait. See, you did it again. It's extremists. It's people who refuse to —

O'REILLY: It's not extremists.

WILLIAMS: It's a German society. They are the ones causing that problem.

And then there was this:

WILLIAMS: But, Bill, here's a caution point. The other day in New York, some guy cuts a Muslim cabby's neck and says he's attacking him or you think about the protest at the mosque near Ground Zero —


WILLIAMS: I don't know what is in that guy's head. But I'm saying, we don't want in America, people to have their rights violated to be attacked on the street because they heard a rhetoric from Bill O'Reilly and they act crazy. We've got to say to people as Bill was saying tonight, that guy is a nut.

O'REILLY: He is a nut. And I said that about the guy in Florida—who wanted to burn the Koran. I came down on him like crazy.

WILLIAMS: Correct. There you go.

Williams' firing is a clarifying moment in media mores. You can be Islamophobic, in the form of refusing to run the most innocuous imaginable political cartoons out of a broad-brush fear of Muslims, but you can't admit it, even when the fear is expressed as a personal feeling and not a group description, winnowed down to the very specific and nightmare-exhuming act of riding on an airplane, and uttered in a context of otherwise repudiating collective guilt and overbroad fearmongering.  

I think Williams' worried/nervous comments were much too broad–I see zero reason to ever feel anxiety if a 100-year-old woman in traditional Islamic headdress is sitting next to me on a plane–and it's been a long time since I recall the heart rate quickening at the sight of a bearded and nervous young man in Islamic garb standing in front of me in an airport security line. But I have felt that heightened sense of anxiety in the past, and if it wasn't a common enough sensation you probably wouldn't see satire like this:

According to the depiction on NPR's own website, this episode seems to have a political back story that I suspect plays a strong role:

NPR issued a statement praising Williams as a valuable contributor but saying it had given him notice that it is severing his contract. "His remarks on The O'Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR," the statement read.

Williams' presence on the largely conservative and often contentious prime-time talk shows of Fox News has long been a sore point with NPR News executives.

His status was earlier shifted from staff correspondent to analyst after he took clear-cut positions about public policy on television and in newspaper opinion pieces.

I hope NPR gets more specific about which "editorial standards and practices" in particular were violated here, so we can best tailor our archive searches.