Commentary: Juan Williams and NPR

America generally deals with touchy questions involving minorities in one of two ways: politely tip-toeing around them or ranting mindlessly.

A third option – tackling the questions head on, but thoughtfully – can be dangerous, as Juan Williams found out last week.

NPR’s executives have been coming up with expanding rationales for summarily firing the distinguished longtime analyst last week. He’s been off the tracks for a long time, they’ve said, crossing the line from analysis to commentator and riling up listeners over his appearances on Fox News.

Last Wednesday, though, the story was clean and simple: Williams had spoken the unspeakable. The firing offense was saying, “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.”

Never mind the context – a discussion with Bill O’Reilly in which Williams was insisting that all Muslims shouldn’t be tarred as dangerous extremists. The people at NPR cut that single comment about getting nervous and pasted it into Williams’ walking papers. The next day, NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller said he should have kept the remark between him and “his psychiatrist.”

Earth to Schiller: There aren’t enough psychiatrists in the world for all the people who make a visceral connection between air travelers in Muslim garb and acts of terrorism.

It’s a jerk of the knee, and it’s unfair and irrational. Something like 30,000 commercial flights take off and land every day in this country; a goodly percentage of them have Muslims on board, and nothing bad happens. Besides, no genuine terrorist is likely to wear clothes that attract attention. Mathematically, the chances of getting blown out of the sky by the woman with the head scarf in Row 14 is infinitesimally small.

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