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Solomon Jones: Vigilance wanted, not discrimination

Listening to the president with my 11-year-old son

ON SUNDAY, my son and I and watched President Obama speak from the White House in the wake of the deadly San Bernardino attacks that killed 14 and wounded 17 others.

I was numb as I listened. Perhaps I was still trying to grasp the reality. After all, the fact that Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his 27-year-old wife Tashfeen Malik, would walk into a holiday party at the San Bernardino County Health Department and kill more than a dozen people seemed farfetched, at best.

But I'd seen them everywhere, their faces staring out from computers and televisions, from newspapers and smartphones. Farook and Malik took 14 American lives. They did so, President Obama said, after "embracing a perverted interpretation of Islam that calls for war against America and the West."

I watched my son as the president spoke. He was listening absently, in the way that 11-year-olds do. He played a game on one of his many electronic devices, glancing only occasionally at the television.

The president said we've been at war against terror groups since the World Trade Center was attacked, killing more than 3,000 people in 2001. He said our law enforcement and intelligence networks have thwarted countless plots since then. He said we have a four-pronged strategy to fight terror groups like ISIS.

When the president was finished, however, and I turned to my son to ask him what stood out in the speech, my son said, "We shouldn't judge all Muslims."

I couldn't have been more proud.

I've tried hard to pass on to my children the simple idea that everyone should be treated as an individual. For now, at least, I seem to have succeeded.

I haven't told them that everyone is good. Nor have I sugarcoated the fact that both racism and sexism exist.

But their understanding of discrimination as a real and current problem is not just for their own instruction. I've told them about prejudice so that they will not discriminate against others.

Discrimination, you see, thrives on excuses and generalizations. It survives because one generation passes it to the next. If I were to allow my children to use terrorism as an excuse to discriminate against Muslims, we'd be no better than those who would unfairly treat blacks. We would, in essence, become the very bigots that our ancestors fought against.

Yes, we should be prepared to defend ourselves in the fight against terrorism. Yes, we should always be vigilant. However, that vigilance should never lead to prejudice. It should not make us assume the worst based on someone's religion, race or ethnicity. It should never turn us into the very thing we claim to be fighting against.

The president said as much toward the end of his speech.

"We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam," he said. "That, too, is what groups like ISIL want.

"ISIL does not speak for Islam," he continued. "They are thugs and killers, part of a cult of death. And they account for a tiny fraction of a more than a billion Muslims around the world, including millions of patriotic Muslim-Americans who reject their hateful ideology."

As a Christian, I believe I should love my neighbor as myself. For me, that means treating people as individuals, and judging them on their own character.

The actions of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik do not make every Muslim a terrorist, just as Dylann Roof's decision to kill nine blacks in a church bible study does not make every white man a racist.

I've tried to teach my children those lessons, and on Sunday the president reinforced them.

"If we're to succeed in defeating terrorism," he said, "we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate."

Thank you Mr. President. My son and I agree.

Solomon Jones, whose column appears Tuesdays, is the author of 10 books. Listen to him mornings from 7 to 10 on WURD (900-AM). More at