Every January, a cross section of Americans who embody our nation's highest ideals are invited to Washington as guests of the president for his State of the Union address.
When President Barack Obama delivers his next State of the Union speech, a soldier identified only as "Bud" in a brief appearance on a hidden camera television series called "What Would You Do?" probably won't be sitting in a place of honor among the Capitol Hill dignitaries. That's unfortunate.
Members of the U.S. Supreme Court and both houses of Congress won't have an opportunity to applaud him for standing up to bigotry that routinely causes so many others to cower in silence every day.
In the video, a young actor posing as an overly patriotic bigot stands at the counter of a convenience store in an unnamed city, insulting a Muslim clerk about his religion.
Wearing an American flag shirt, the faux customer tries to stir up a steaming froth of patriotic resentment against the clerk within earshot of stunned and uncomfortable shoppers. He tells the clerk, who is also an actor, that he wants to be served, but that he doesn't want his food handled by a Muslim.
The two actors are following a script, but the others caught on the show's hidden cameras follow their conscience -- or lack of one.
Long before Bud arrives, several customers let the obnoxious young man know that they think he's an idiot. The two women who get in his face are viscerally disgusted. Most, including the men, are temporarily rattled by the young man's willingness to go public with his racist harangue.
One woman says she feels like she's "dreaming" as she listens to his staged idiocy. The viewers aren't told how long the crew filmed the encounters. The impression from the way it is edited is that only a few people stood up to the bigot, but I have no idea how big a pool of people that is.
Still, it is interesting that only one man is shown actively agreeing with the fake bigot that there's something sinister about Muslims trying to blend in with "regular" people. When that man is confronted in the parking lot by the show's host, John Quinones, he doubles down on the stupid because he's a genuine bigot and not just pretending for the camera.
Things get interesting when Bud, dressed in military fatigues, arrives at the convenience store/delicatessen. When the fake bigot tries to engage him, Bud reacts with a half laugh before composing himself. His contempt for the young man becomes obvious fast, but he remains polite even as he brushes off his question about why he wears the military uniform if not to fight people like the clerk.
Bud walks away from the bigot initially, because he doesn't want any trouble. When he hears the young man continuing to insult the Muslim clerk, however, he turns and confronts him. The following is a partial transcript because Disney, which owns the rights to the segment, asked YouTube and other news sites to take it down:
Bud (angry): "Put your chips down and go buy them somewhere else."
Actor (exasperated): "You want me to leave?"
Bud (raising his voice): "You have a choice to go shop anywhere, just like he has a choice to practice his religion anywhere. That's the reason I wear the uniform. So anyone can live free in this country. Leave the man alone, buy your stuff, and leave."
It is a moment worthy of Frank Capra. Though Bud is one of several people who came to the defense of the Muslim clerk, his anger is more palpable because he sees the values he's fighting for overseas betrayed before his eyes. It is a stunning and moving moment made even more poignant because this week marked the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
After Mr. Quinones reveals that both the bigot and the clerk are actors and that they're on television, he asks Bud whether he considered his actions "heroic." Bud shakes his head.
"No, sir, no," he insists. "Heroes come in many shapes and sizes, and that wasn't heroic at all. That was just being a person, and standing up for someone else."
When Mr. Quinones asks him what principles he was defending, Bud doesn't miss a beat. "Everyone's inalienable rights," the soldier says as the segment's host asks him if he really means "everyone's."
"Everyone's," Bud says. "It doesn't matter if you're a Muslim. If you're an American, you're an American. Period."
I don't get chills from TV segments very much. I did this time.
Tony Norman: email@example.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.