Juan Williams and the Realities of Post-9/11 America

The current dust-up over the firing of Juan Williams from NPR speaks to a major cultural matter in contemporary America. I would submit that when we consider such a major cultural matter, we ought to do so under the light of all its complexity — and not just “cry havoc! and let slip the dogs of war.”

Williams, who until recently was a news analyst for NPR, appeared before Bill O’Reilly and noted that it is wrong to paint all Muslims everywhere with one broad brush. Williams’ larger point was that one cannot simply say “Muslims” are the culprit for terrorist attacks, as O’Reilly had provocatively asserted on The View last week, during which co-hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar walked off the set in protest. This larger point that Williams espoused (and with which most of us would agree) is unoffensive and accurate. But in the course of making this larger point, Williams honestly admitted to his own personal fear that when he is on a plane and he sees a passenger in “Muslim garb,” he does get “nervous” and “worried.”

As I interpreted the interview, Williams appeared not to be proud of this worry he feels during air travel, and he certainly did not present it as something that should be advocated. On the contrary, he brought it to the conversation in the context of realities that currently exist in the American psyche, whether rational or not, in the post-9/11 world. For this he was fired from NPR, without any opportunity to elucidate his comments further, while NPR’s CEO commented that his “offensive” statement was “between him and his psychiatrist.”

Immediately, while liberals flocked to their own corner and denounced Williams as a bigot who deserved to be fired, conservatives in turn flocked to their corner and hailed him as the voice of ordinary Americans, silenced by the tyrannical elitism of NPR, which should no longer receive any federal funding from Congress. Both corners are too extreme and fail to consider the complexities that are involved. [It should be noted that Whoopi Goldberg, who initiated the walk-out on O’Reilly, came to Williams’ defense and said that to fire him for his statement was outrageous.]. The NPR ombudsman, voicing the position of those calling for Williams’ blood, wrote: “What Williams said was deeply offensive to Muslims and inflamed, rather than contributing positively, to an important debate about the role of Muslims in America. Williams was doing the kind of stereotyping in a public platform that is dangerous to a democracy.  It puts people in categories, as types – not as individuals with much in common despite their differences.”

I object to a number of these contentions, not because I am an apologist for a conservative perspective — far more often than not, I am solidly in a liberal camp — but because I believe these contentions are unfair and inaccurate, and blind to the reality of the “debate about the role of Muslims in America.” As for unfair and inaccurate, it seemed that Williams was not really advocating any stereotype about Muslims, or lumping all Muslims into one category (as O’Reilly had in fact done on The View). The context of Williams’ statements bears out that he was speaking about a non-rational personal fear, of which he might even have been ashamed — he was not speaking about Muslims. He was speaking about himself. To leap to the conclusion that he was investing in stereotypes and bigoted statements is disingenuous, and ignores the context of his words.

I have already argued with fervor that Muslims should be viewed and treated with the same respect and liberties as anyone else in this country, and that we must not ignore our founding principles of religious tolerance (for this, see my post, “More than Lip-Service for a Legacy”). Muslims in this country are entitled to the same religious respect and tolerance as Christians, Jews, Buddhists, or anyone else. They do not constitute some alien group, and Islam is certainly the most misunderstood religion in our entire nation.

But this does not change the reality that 9/11 and its perpetrators permanently scarred the American psyche. We who lived through it will never be the same. The legacy of 9/11 continues to this day, in the war that we are fighting in Afghanistan and recently in Iraq, in our counter-terrorism measures, in beefed-up security, in our laws, and in our memories. We cannot escape from it. Terrorists claiming some warped version of Islam attacked us and continue to attack around the world. They attacked us while using Islam as an excuse, a flimsy justification for their barbaric actions. They could have picked any religion and done the same. We know this.

But the fact remains: we were attacked by lunatics wielding planes as weapons. The fantasy that NPR’s ombudsman, and those with the same feelings, insist that we all believe is that the cultural affiliation (however warped) of the 9/11 terrorists does not matter on any level. Either we each manage to forget their affiliation with radical Islam, so that it never affects us in any of our fears ever again, or we are bigots engaging in stereotypes and should lose our jobs. The terrorists’ affiliation with Islam must be excised from our minds. This, in terms of the actual functioning of our psyches, is a fantasy. It is a wonderful fantasy that we should all be able to divorce any association of Islam from the terrorists who attack us. But it is not the reality in this country, where the most tolerant person who knows right-left-and-sideways that “Muslim” does not equal “terrorist,” might still feel that pull of worry in some dark part of his or her brain while sitting on an airplane. It might only be fleeting, then smacked down for the irrational thing that it is, but it is there. And, whether we like it or not, it needs to be acknowledged because it is reality. It cannot be dealt with if it cannot be acknowledged.

NPR’s ombudsman says that Williams did not “[contribute] positively, to an important debate about the role of Muslims in America.” What, exactly, would have qualified as “contributing positively”? How are we supposed to have a “debate” in the true sense of the word — i.e., not a monologue that assumes we should all think the same thing — if we cannot admit to a perfectly explicable, although not rational, fear that was implanted by 9/11? How is any debate worth anything if honesty cannot be allowed, if all the participants must adhere to a rulebook written by only one of the parties? Some people have compared Williams’ statements to stereotypes about, for example, African Americans or any other group, saying that if he said something similar toward another group, no one would be defending him.

That is true, no one would be defending him, and rightly so. But we cannot be blind to reality, or we can never really have “an important debate” that is worth more than just the term itself. The wave of terrorism aimed against almost the entire world in the modern day does not associate itself with, e.g., African Americans. It associates itself with radical Islam, even though this form of Islam has nothing to do with ordinary Muslims. We were attacked with planes. Thus it seems to me that we are allowed to be a little afraid on a plane, whether or not we think we really should be. We cannot realistically be expected simply to forget, deep in our psyches, the radical ideology that the terrorists espouse.

Psychologically, 9/11 scarred us. It is not just a slogan to say that we will never be the same. It is reality, just as the effects of that scarring are reality. Those effects are what Juan Williams honestly admitted to feeling sometimes on a plane. Instead of blindfolding ourselves and stopping up our ears, claiming to call for “positive contributions” to “an important debate” while Juan Williams is drawn and quartered, we ought to take a step back and ask ourselves if the rulebook for this “debate” includes honesty or not.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

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