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Bill O’Reilly Isn’t a Bigot. But He Is Wrong.

Bill O’Reilly appeared on The View yesterday, and the conversation turned to the effort to build a mosque near Ground Zero. In the course of the discussion, O’Reilly, who opposes building the mosque at this location, pointed out that 70 percent of the public (68 percent according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll) sides with him on this matter. When pressed as to why that’s the case, O’Reilly said, “Because Muslims killed us on 9/11!” This turned an acrimonious debate into an explosive one, with co-hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar walking off the set.

The whole thing was something of an embarrassment for everyone involved. Perhaps predictably, though, Mr. O’Reilly devoted much of his show, The O’Reilly Factor, to this issue (see here and here). O’Reilly’s basic argument is that everyone knows, or should know, that he’s not an anti-Muslim bigot. Rather, he sees himself as an intrepid truth-teller (“I tell it like it is” and “I’m not in the business of sugar-coating harsh realities”). Everyone by now knows the distinction between radical Muslims and moderate Muslims, O’Reilly argues, so the distinction is unnecessary. Those who are criticizing him are part of the PC police. And it’s commonplace to say that the Japanese attacked us in World War II, so why shouldn’t we say Muslims attacked us on 9/11?

I happen to agree with O’Reilly on the mosque/Ground Zero issue. But his analogy is flawed. With Japan, we were dealing with a nation-state; with al-Qaeda, we are dealing with a small percentage of militants in a faith that includes more than 1.5 billion people in more than 200 countries.

Moreover, O’Reilly’s claim is unfair – and O’Reilly should understand why. Here’s an illustration that might help clarify things. Assume that Sam Harris went on The O’Reilly Factor and, based on the child-abuse scandals that tarnished the reputation of the Catholic Church, made the sweeping claim that “Catholics are child molesters.” My guess is that O’Reilly would (rightly) respond, “No. Some priests molested children, and it was a horrific thing. But you can’t indict an entire faith based on the sins of a relatively few number of priests.”

We shouldn’t kid ourselves; there is a not-insignificant strand of people in the Muslim world who align themselves with the ideology of al-Qaeda – and an even larger number who more or less accept its narrative of history. The condemnations by more moderate Muslims against its militant strand could certainly be more muscular. At the same time, the militant Islamists who attacked us on 9/11 don’t represent the vast majority of Muslims in the world – and certainly not the views of most Muslim Americans.

I understand that in the midst of a passionate debate on television, you can say things in imprecise and offensive ways; we have to leave some room for that to happen in our public discourse. We’re all fallible, and we all, from time to time, say things we wish we could take back. Words that wound shouldn’t necessarily be a hanging offense. Still, I do wish that, on reflection, Mr. O’Reilly, rather than defending his comments, had simply said that in thinking over his statement, he made a mistake. His comment was far too sweeping. It was, in fact, an unfair indictment against all Muslims. And the distinction between radical Islamists and the wider Muslim world (including, of course, Muslim Americans) is important to maintain.

The offense most people might take to what O’Reilly said isn’t based on political correctness, I don’t think; it is based on a deep understanding of what it means to hold and to share the title American citizen. To be an American means, at least in part, to avoid creating unnecessary divisions over matters of faith. This view was central to America’s founding. Comity, tolerance, and respect for people who hold views different from your own is a sign of civility, not weakness.

In his letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, President Washington wrote these beautiful words:

May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

I certainly don’t think Bill O’Reilly is a bigot. But I do believe that, in this instance, what he said was wrong. He should say so.