In the days immediately following the horrific 9/11 attack on the United States almost seven years ago, President Bush showed true statesmanship in many ways.

Even those of us who sharply disagree with his war policy in Iraq can agree with that if we stop to remember. He inspired, he reassured, he rallied the international community.

Significantly, in those first days, he also called on our better angels. He went out of his way to caution Americans not to judge Muslims by the acts of extremists.

In a major address that September, Bush emphasized the point: “The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics, a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam.”

He called Muslim teachings “good and peaceful” and said, “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends.”

That message was repeated often in many ways in those dark days, a great credit to our leaders and, frankly, to our society. No one wanted a repeat of the shameful Japanese internment camps of World War II.

But in the years since, the message has faded. Our leaders don’t repeat it, and the language of our national discourse tends to undermine it. The distinction between Muslims and Islamist fanatics gets lost.

The degree of open prejudice is frightening.

Web sites and the radical right at times are almost hysterical in the conspiracy theories they concoct around the presidential race and specifically around Barack Obama.

But it isn’t just the bigotry of the fringe groups that is disturbing. It’s also the way prejudicial assumptions have slipped into the mainstream.

Alarmists fantasize that Obama is a Muslim, and in discussing the outlandish rumor, we all refer to it more or less as a charge: Obama denied the charge that he is a Muslim.

That choice of words suggests there would be something wrong with it if he was.


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