As a New Yorker, I take Sept. 11 personally. I’ll never forget that I was travelling to work by train, going through a tunnel from Manhattan to New Jersey (I taught at Monmouth University at the time) right when the planes hit the Twin Towers. I’ll never forget feeling disoriented and then sick after I first heard a radio news report talking about “another plane” having just hit the Pentagon. “Another plane?” I remember thinking. What happened to the first plane or planes? Then I found out. Nor will I forget the feeling in the city after I got back, a feeling of togetherness, of unity I felt with my fellow New Yorkers on the street. It was palpable.
There’s a different feeling I have when I see right-wing demagogues use 9/11 as a political cudgel. That’s what I saw them do to Rep. Ilhan Omar this week. And, as I’ll discuss below, it is far from the first time they have done something like this.
What did Omar say? Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post Fact Check writer, did a terrific job putting the statement cited by those who attacked her into the full context of her broader remarks, delivered at a Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) event on March 23:
“Many of us knew this would get worse, we finally have a leader, a world leader, in the White House who publicly says ‘Islam hates us,’ who fuels hate against Muslims, who thinks it is okay to speak about a faith and a whole community in a way that is dehumanizing, vilifying and doesn’t understand — or at least makes us want to think he doesn’t understand — the consequences his words might have,”
[snip] “Here’s the truth. For far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen and, frankly, I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties. So you can’t just say that today someone is looking at me strange and that I am trying to make myself look pleasant. You have to say that this person is looking at me strange, I am not comfortable with it, and I am going to talk to them and ask them why. Because that is the right you have.”
[snip] “I know as an American, as an American member of Congress, I have to make sure I am living up to the ideals of fighting for liberty and justice. Those are very much rooted in the reason why my family came here.”
The full remarks make clear what Omar was doing. First of all, she clearly acknowledged that the 9/11 terrorists were Muslim, and was pointing out that all Muslims were suffering, were “los[ing] access to our civil liberties” because of what those Muslim terrorists did on that day. The subject of her comments was not the murder of 3,000 Americans, but the effect those murders had on civil liberties. Notice that she closed by emphasizing that American ideals of liberty and justice were the “reason” why her family chose to come here. Her larger point about the danger of treating all Muslims as suspicious is an important one.
Kessler also remarked that, taken in context, Omar’s discussion of 9/11 reminded him of remarks made by George W. Bush:
“I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”
— Bullhorn address to Ground Zero rescue workers, Sept. 14, 2011
I don’t remember right-wingers attacking Bush’s loyalty to America after he referred to the 9/11 terrorists as “the people who knocked these buildings down”—which sounds like they could have been construction workers at a demolition site. We know that’s not what Bush meant because of the context. Well, the same goes for Omar—at least, for anyone who gives her remarks a fair reading.
OK, so Omar erred by not using the word terrorist or terrorism to describe those who committed the murders on 9/11, and yes, she could have made her remarks more appropriate simply by adding, for example, “evil” or “murderous” after the words “did something.” She could have done better. But nothing she said or didn’t say justifies the truly hateful, divisive, and dangerous attacks hurled at her by right-wing media, Republican elected officials, and Republican party leaders—right up to and including Individual 1 himself.
Let’s start with the New York Post cover that deployed the very image of the murders as political propaganda—something that is far more disrespectful of the memory of the 9/11 attacks than anything Rep. Omar said—along with a trenchant criticism from Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts:
@Ilhan full comments clearly speak to post 9/11 #Islamophobia Manipulating her remarks is defaming & dangerous for her & her family. Stop with this recklessness. @rupertmurdoch this is on you – stoking hate, fear & division, putting REAL lives at risk. Shame on you. https://t.co/fpemnGxQKk
— Ayanna Pressley (@AyannaPressley) April 11, 2019
Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas piled on as well, in the process retweeting some absolute bullshit he isn’t willing to say directly, namely that Omar “does not consider [9/11] a terrorist attack on the USA.”
First Member of Congress to ever describe terrorists who killed thousands of Americans on 9/11 as “some people who did something”.
— Dan Crenshaw (@DanCrenshawTX) April 9, 2019
AOC’s response to Crenshaw was typical AOC—not only right on, but right on with substance and a call for action:
You refuse to cosponsor the 9/11 Victim’s Compensation Fund, yet have the audacity to drum resentment towards Ilhan w/completely out-of-context quotes.
In 2018, right-wing extremists were behind almost ALL US domestic terrorist killings. Why don’t you go do something about that? https://t.co/rkb92IxkKX
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) April 11, 2019
Fox & Friends, which Trump apparently mainlines every morning, weighed in as well, with co-host Brian Kilmeade asserting: “You have to wonder if she’s an American first.” The chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, went down a similar path: “Ilhan Omar isn’t just anti-Semitic—she’s anti-American. Nearly 3,000 Americans lost their lives to Islamic terrorists on 9/11, yet Omar diminishes it as: ‘Some people did something.’”
The worst, most despicable attack came, unsurprisingly, from the white-nationalist-in-chief. He tweeted a video that repeatedly interspersed Rep. Omar saying “some people did something” with footage of the planes hitting the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, of people running in the streets, and of one of the Towers going down. This is not political discourse, it is nothing less than incitement to assassinate a member of Congress.
Rather than simply provide Trump’s disgusting tweet, I’d rather embed along with it a particularly strong counter from political commentator Dean Obeidallah, who asked where the Republican outrage is over what that incredible narcissist sociopath was focused on just after 3,000 Americans were murdered on 9/11:
Here is Trump despicably bragging on 9/11 that after the terrorist attack that killed nearly 3,000 people his building was now "the tallest" in New York City. Even on 9/11 he could only think of himself. Nothing is more vile than Trump #IStandWithIlhan pic.twitter.com/rEB3DqcUsN
— (((DeanObeidallah))) (@DeanObeidallah) April 13, 2019
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s response to Trump’s tweet—a demand for Republicans as well as Democrats to stand up and be counted—is exactly right: “Members of Congress have a duty to respond to the President’s explicit attack today. @IlhanMN’s life is in danger. For our colleagues to be silent is to be complicit in the outright, dangerous targeting of a member of Congress. We must speak out.”
For her part, Omar pushed back hard, with righteous indignation (she made these remarks before Trump tweeted his video, but after a number of other attacks):
When you have people on Fox News that question whether I am actually American or I put America first, I expect my colleagues to also say, ‘that’s not OK,'” Omar told “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert. “Or when people say, you know, that because I’m a Muslim, I’m an immigrant, I’m a refugee, that I can’t have any loyalty to our country. I took an oath. I took an oath to uphold the Constitution. I am as American as everyone else is.
I hope Rep. Omar recognizes that she did make a mistake this week. For anyone who doubts that, ask yourself how you think Native Americans would feel if the 1890 massacre by U.S. soldiers of 146 Sioux men, women, and children at Wounded Knee was described as ‘some people did something,’ or if similar words were used to describe the 1921 Tulsa race riots that resulted in the murders of between 100 and 300 African Americans at the hands of white mobs. Whatever the context, however valid the larger point a speaker was making, we would surely recognize that those words are inappropriate to describe such events. Likewise, Rep. Omar’s words about the terrorist mass murders that took place on 9/11 were not the right ones, although I’m confident she did not intend to hurt or offend anyone.
The fact that right-wingers cynically exploited the opening Omar gave them and proceeded to hype fear and stoke hatred of Muslims—of the kind that led a Trump supporter to call her congressional office and tell one of her staffers that she was a “(expletive) terrorist” and that he intended to “put a bullet in her (expletive) skull,” leading to his arrest—doesn’t change the fact that she needs to figure out how to speak about sensitive topics more carefully. She must do so both for her own safety—given the hate being ginned up against her by Trump and his followers—as well for the sake of her political career and that of the progressive movement. You can certainly say that right-wingers would have found something else to attack her over, or, as you’ll see in the example below with President Obama, that they’d just make something up. That may be true, but an attack is likely to gain far more traction if there’s video or audio to back it up.
I haven’t hesitated to criticize Rep. Omar in the past for using dangerous language that echoed anti-Semitic tropes, nor have I hesitated to praise her when she has since then properly avoided such language when criticizing Israel (which people can absolutely do, without being anti-Semitic). She isn’t perfect (who is?), and her language here about 9/11 was problematic. But, without question, the right-wing attacks against her are far beyond the pale. They are the worst kind of race-baiting and fear-mongering.
Earlier, I pointed out that this isn’t the first time right-wingers have engaged in this kind of demagoguery around 9/11. Among many other incidents, I was referring to a particular one involving Rush Limbaugh and Barack Obama, one that I came across in researching my forthcoming book.
On Nov. 10, 2009, Limbaugh claimed that an article then-State Sen. Barack Obama published in the Hyde Park Herald a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks made clear that “in Obama’s mind” America is “to blame” for those attacks, and that this belief derives from “a hatred of this country” on Obama’s part. Limbaugh returned to the same article on July 28, 2011, similarly claiming that “Obama, after 9/11, said he had empathy for the terrorists.”
Here’s what President Obama actually wrote:
Even as I hope for some measure of peace and comfort to the bereaved families, I must also hope that we as a nation draw some measure of wisdom from this tragedy. Certain immediate lessons are clear, and we must act upon those lessons decisively. We need to step up security at our airports. We must reexamine the effectiveness of our intelligence networks. And we must be resolute in identifying the perpetrators of these heinous acts and dismantling their organizations of destruction.
We must also engage, however, in the more difficult task of understanding the sources of such madness. The essence of this tragedy, it seems to me, derives from a fundamental absence of empathy on the part of the attackers: an inability to imagine, or connect with, the humanity and suffering of others. Such a failure of empathy, such numbness to the pain of a child or the desperation of a parent, is not innate; nor, history tells us, is it unique to a particular culture, religion, or ethnicity. It may find expression in a particular brand of violence, and may be channeled by particular demagogues or fanatics. Most often, though, it grows out of a climate of poverty and ignorance, helplessness and despair.
We will have to make sure, despite our rage, that any U.S. military action takes into account the lives of innocent civilians abroad. We will have to be unwavering in opposing bigotry or discrimination directed against neighbors and friends of Middle Eastern descent. Finally, we will have to devote far more attention to the monumental task of raising the hopes and prospects of embittered children across the globe—children not just in the Middle East, but also in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and within our own shores.
Regarding Limbaugh’s 2009 slander, do you see Obama blaming the U.S. for the 9/11 attacks anywhere in that article? I sure don’t. I see him trying to explain, in broad terms, “the sources of such madness.” The article urges the U.S. to take a number of actions relating to our security, to strike back and carry out the “dismantling” of terrorist “organizations,” and to work on improving the lives of people around the globe. He absolutely does not “blame” the U.S.
As for Limbaugh’s 2011 claim, Obama didn’t say that he had “empathy for the terrorists.” As the words in bold above clearly demonstrate, Obama said that the terrorists didn’t have any empathy for the people they were attacking. It was the other way around from what Limbaugh said. Either Limbaugh doesn’t know how to read, or he just thought he could get away with lying about what Obama wrote. I’ll let you guess which option I believe is more likely.
Limbaugh, in his shameless lying about President Obama, shared a goal with Trump and the others who hurled vile attacks on Rep. Omar this past week: to place a progressive American, not to mention an American of color, outside the bounds of the American community. Such attacks go far beyond criticism on policy grounds. They prey on fear, advance hatred, and further the tribalization of American politics.
What these and too many other incidents make clear is this: Republicans have no compunction when it comes to misleading, twisting, or even lying about the words Democrats utter regarding the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001—an act of evil that should be above sleazy politics. The events of 9/11 should be something sacred. Instead, Republicans see them as just another political weapon.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (forthcoming in May 2019).