This controversy has eaten up my whole day, so I won’t spend much more time on it. Glenn Greenwald has some thoughts up at his blog that I very much disagree with even though on most matters of journalistic dismissals (from Helen Thomas to Octavia Nasr) we tend to be on the same page. On Twitter today, Greenwald replied to me saying that Williams’ statement on what he meant doesn’t line up with what I said he meant.
Here’s Williams’ statement:
Yesterday NPR fired me for telling the truth. The truth is that I worry when I am getting on an airplane and see people dressed in garb that identifies them first and foremost as Muslims.
This is not a bigoted statement. It is a statement of my feelings, my fears after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by radical Muslims. In a debate with Bill O’Reilly I revealed my fears to set up the case for not making rash judgments about people of any faith. I pointed out that the Atlanta Olympic bomber – as well as Timothy McVeigh and the people who protest against gay rights at military funerals — are Christians but we journalists don’t identify them by their religion.
And I made it clear that all Americans have to be careful not to let fears lead to the violation of anyone’s constitutional rights, be it to build a mosque, carry the Koran or drive a New York cab without the fear of having your throat slashed. Bill and I argued after I said he has to take care in the way he talks about the 9/11 attacks so as not to provoke bigotry.
This is pretty much what I said Williams was attempting to get across (and again here) – though I’ll be the first to admit he didn’t do it very well. I imagine if I were talking with O’Reilly I might not say things all that clearly either given that he interrupts and cuts people off and makes it pretty hard for guests to get full, cogent statements out. I’m sure Williams could have said it much better. But that doesn’t change what he actually said.
Furthermore, are we all so pure of heart that none of us ever feel a pang of fear or doubt or nervousness when we see very obviously Muslim people boarding our planes? We know it’s irrational and wrong, but we still do it or have done it at one point. Right after 9/11 I know I felt this way – and I was vehemently opposed to both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I’ve gotten over those irrational fears, but I’m not really surprised some people feel this way after the 9/11 attacks even all these years later. Our ridiculous foreign policy in the Muslim world means that many Muslims do in fact really despise Americans.
But this is all beside the point. Williams was saying that fear shouldn’t be the driving force behind our politics or our punditry. Here is the full transcript of the video. And here’s the video:
Some argued that Williams needed to get sacked one way or another, that he’d already pushed enough buttons with NPR enough and that this was just the final straw. Fine. Track records matter. But you can only use the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ argument if the straw in question is legitimate – if it’s is an actual offense in line with previous offenses. I simply cannot see how anyone could watch this video and come to the conclusion that Williams was endorsing everything O’Reilly said.
Greenwald points to this post by Adam Serwer. Adam argues that “The problem is that it’s clear from the context that Williams wasn’t merely confessing his own personal fears, he was reassuring O’Reilly that he was right to see all Muslims as potential terrorists.”
But I don’t see it that way at all. Williams quite clearly argues that no, it’s the extremists who are the problem and that we can’t let our fears of extremists lead us to blanket judge all Muslims even if our instincts might get the better of us sometimes. I think the only point at which he agreed with O’Reilly was that political correctness can muddle up these conversations, and that was in reference to O’Reilly’s appearance on The View, not any assertions about all Muslims being potential threats. O’Reilly’s larger point, for that matter, is that there is a problem globally with Muslims and really I find that hard to deny given that we’re at war with Muslim nations all across the globe. I disagree entirely with O’Reilly on why that’s the case, but hell, the focus here on pundits is kind of ridiculous anyways. Williams isn’t ordering drone attacks in Afghanistan. He’s not ordering assassinations in Yemen. Somebody is, but it sure isn’t Juan Williams.