By William Saletan
Shirley Sherrod, meet Juan Williams.
Three months ago, right-wingers clipped a video of Sherrod to make her look like a racist. They circulated the video on the Internet, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture fired her.
Now it's happening again. This time, left-wingers have done the editing. They clipped a video of Juan Williams, a commentator for Fox News and NPR, to make him look like an anti-Muslim bigot. They circulated the video on the Internet, and last night, NPR fired him.
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. Now, I remember also that when the Times Square bomber was at court, I think this was just last week. 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.
In its statement announcing Williams' termination, NPR said: "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." (You can read NPR's full statement here.)
The passage quoted by NPR and the Times is a dead ringer for a video clip of Williams, branded and distributed by Think Progress. The clip, which cleverly isolates the offending comment, has circulated among left-wing Web sites, just as the Sherrod clip circulated among right-wing sites. (The Washington Post also directs readers to the clip.) But the full transcript of Williams' appearance on The O'Reilly Factor, like the full video of Sherrod's speech to the NAACP, tells a much more complicated story.
On the program, Williams was responding to host Bill O'Reilly, who had gotten into trouble for comments about Islam and terrorism. In his initial answer, Williams said exactly what the video excerpt shows: that he worries when he sees passengers in Muslim garb, and that the Times Square bomber declared a U.S. war with Muslims.
Williams is right about the bomber. When Faisal Shahzad pleaded guilty in the Times Square plot, he told the court: "Brace yourselves, because the war with Muslims has just begun. Consider me only a first droplet of the flood that will follow me." That isn't a legitimate basis for judging all Muslims. But it is, as Williams said, a fact. And Williams' confession that he fears religious Muslims isn't necessarily an endorsement of bigotry. Remember what Jesse Jackson said 17 years ago: "There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery — then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved." Sometimes a confession of prejudice is part of a larger reflection on the perils of prejudice. That was true of Sherrod. And it's true of Williams.