Barack Obama himself has never had the guts to say it.
Indeed, while it is famously difficult to prove a negative, it seems apparent that few people in all of politics and media have had the guts to say it. Did John McCain ever say it? Did Rick Santorum or Bill O’Reilly?
So let us plant a little flag for, mark with a yellow highlighter, the thing Rep. Raul Labrador said Sunday on “Meet the Press”: that “it wouldn’t matter” if President Obama were a Muslim. And if it seems rather much to be handing out medals for such a modest statement of principle, well … the principle has been under fire for so long that even a modest statement feels momentous.
In recent years, public figures have made news for refuting (like McCain) or failing to refute (like Santorum) the canard that Obama is a follower of Islam. But outside of Colin Powell, who did so a few years back on “Meet the Press,” it is difficult to think of many — or any — who have dared to confront the notion implicit in the lie. Namely, that being a Muslim is incompatible with being an American.
This is taken by some as self-evident truth even as Muslim soldiers risk their lives on our battlefields, Muslim cops risk their lives on our streets, Muslim teachers teach our children, Muslim reporters report our news, Muslim politicians help to make our laws, and Muslim-Americans struggle against those who believe our sacred ideals cover other people, but not them.
Thus, a fleeting statement that should have been obvious to the point of mundanity feels instead like a water station in the Mojave.
Labrador is no fan of the president’s. His comment about Islam was made en route to a contention that Obama’s policies have “weakened” the nation. Labrador is a Republican and a conservative from a very Republican and conservative state, Idaho. It is his political and ideological kin who are most responsible for pushing — and believing — the Obama-as-Muslim narrative. All of which imbues his remark with a welcome patina of political courage and moral clarity.
Perhaps he would agree that what has historically weakened this nation at least as much as any policy the president has ever pursued is the tiresome notion that some of us are more American than the rest of us, that the “all” in “all men are created equal” refers only to those of the right gender, genus, sexual or political orientation, or faith. It is an idea abhorrent to the aforementioned sacred ideals, yet one embraced eagerly in recent years by those who apparently feel bereft without someone to fear.
It is a shameful truth of American history that there has never been a shortage of someones to fear, nor of those who were willing to maximize and exploit that fear. It is an equally shameful truth that Americans, in thrall to that fear, have committed grievous sins against both human rights and those sacred ideals.
And always, it begins with some false, implicit truth, some lie that gains such a foothold in the popular imagination, that becomes so pervasive and persuasive, no one even questions it anymore. Some, because they don’t think to; others, because they don’t dare to.
So someone says the German-Americans are traitors and let’s string that one up — and no one says a thing.
Someone says the Japanese-Americans are spies and let’s imprison them all behind barbed wire — and no one raises a cry.
And someone says all the Muslims are terrorists and we must rid our nation of them by any means necessary — and one hears only the arias of the crickets.
It is in those complicit silences that we lose ourselves, that we betray our ideals and that mobs are born. So there is nothing modest about even a modest statement of principle. And one cannot help but be glad Labrador, being what he is, said what he said.
It’s about time someone did.
(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at email@example.com.)