Omar, Harbinger of Democratic Decline?
By Bret Stephens
New York Times
April 18, 2019
Spot the problem with the quoted remarks:
(1) The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 was “something some
(2) Last month’s attack on two mosques in Christchurch,
New Zealand, was “something someone did.”
(3) The 2015 massacre at a black church in Charleston,
S.C., was “something someone did.”
Now imagine that a public figure with a history of making
racially inflammatory remarks — someone like Representative Steve King of Iowa
or, better yet, President Trump — had said any of this. (Neither of them did.)
Would you not be appalled?
Of course you would. You’d be insulted by the evasiveness
of the something and someone. You’d be revolted that a
right-wing politician would fail to speak forcefully against the bigotries too
often found among his followers and fellow travelers. You’d be disgusted by
the deliberate attempt to conceal the scale of the horror, the identity of the
perpetrators, and the racist ideology that motivated them.
And you’d make no allowances for the possibility that the
politician in question might have merely misspoken, especially if he failed to
apologize, clarify or correct himself. With political power comes rhetorical
So it is that one should think about the furor — and
counter-furor — over the Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar’s claim, in a
speech last month in California, that the Council on American-Islamic Relations
“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
The bulk of Omar’s speech was devoted to preaching
political empowerment for American Muslims and denouncing Islamophobia. That’s
fine as far as it goes.
But contrary to claims by some of her apologists, the
remark is not taken out of context, it is not contradicted by anything else she
says in the speech, and it is not marred merely because it is factually
mistaken. (CAIR was founded seven years before 9/11.) Nor is the problem a
matter of inapt phrasing: Omar is a confident public speaker with a precise
command of language and a knack for turning a phrase.
The problem is that the remark is foul, in exactly the same
way that the hypothetical remarks listed above are foul. I live in lower
Manhattan, near the 9/11 memorial and museum. No decent person can look at the portraits
of the 2,983 victims of Islamist terrorists and say, by-the-by, that
this was “something” that “some people did.”
The problem is also that the remarks didn’t come from
just anyone. Just as Trump has repeatedly made his ethnic prejudices plain, so
has Omar. She has demonized
Israel, and American
supporters of Israel, in terms that are unmistakably anti-Semitic. She has
by fellow Democrats, claimed ignorance
by way of apology, and then
slurred Jews again — without
apology. And despite claiming to be a champion of human rights, she has been
oddly selective about the human-rights issues that elicit her outrage.
Now Omar’s defenders are keen to paint her as a victim of
Islamophobia, which no
doubt she is. In this case, however, a victim of bigotry is also a major and
unflinching bigot in her own right. That the president has chosen to target Omar
may smack of rank hypocrisy, but it would be political malpractice for him not
to pick the fight. Her views as a public figure, and what they signify for the
party she represents, are fair game.
All the more so as progressives rush to her defense. Omar
is not a significant figure in her own right. And the House of Representatives
has never lacked for cranks, knaves, fools and bigots.
What is significant is that Omar’s defenders don’t
consider her prejudices about Jews as particularly disqualifying, morally or
politically, at least not when weighed against the things they like about her
(and hate about her enemies). As for her views about Israel, she’s practically
mainstream for her segment of the Democratic Party — a harbinger of what’s
to come as the old guard of pro-Israel liberals like Majority
Leader Steny Hoyer gives way to the anti-Israel wokesters typified by Alexandria
What is all this reminiscent of?
Oh, right: the early days of Trump, when millions of
Republican primary voters heard the candidate denounce Mexicans as drug dealers,
criminals and rapists, and said to themselves, “We like that.” The central
lesson of the moral collapse that followed for the G.O.P. isn’t that
conservatives are a uniquely perfidious bunch. It’s that partisans of any
stripe are always susceptible to demagoguery, particularly when the demagogue
refuses to back down in the face of outrage. Shamelessness has a way of
inspiring a following, and Omar is in the process of cornering the
market on the left.
Still, let’s not be entirely negative about the
congresswoman. Toward the end of her speech, she said it was vital “to make
sure that we are not only holding people that we don’t like accountable: We
must also hold those that we love, have shared values with, accountable.”
Those words, at least, are wise. The best thing Democrats
could do now is apply them to Omar herself.