The other night, I got a link to a post from a conservative Israeli blogger about how "American Jews are furious with Congresswoman Ilhan Omar for downplaying the importance of 9/11." Needless to say, I was puzzled. I'm an American, I'm Jewish, but I'm not furious, and I didn't recall the congresswoman downplaying anything about 9/11. And then, I saw a similar post on a conservative website, with a demand that the representative apologize. This was followed by various angry tweets from other conservatives. Then a couple of Fox News commentators accused her of not really being American, and of not loving her adopted country. And it culminated in an ugly and manipulative front page of a conservative New York newspaper, and an equally ugly and manipulative tweet from Pres. Trump, tying Rep. Omar to 9/11 and implying that because she's a Muslim, she's sympathetic to those who attacked us.
Before going any further, let me say that I don't always agree with Rep. Omar, especially when it comes to her views about Israel. Let me also say I'm not shocked that she holds some anti-Israel views-- after all, she grew up in a Muslim country, and that's undoubtedly what she was taught. And no, contrary to what my conservative friends insist, opposing the current Israeli government does not mean she hates the Jews. A lot of American Jews find the current Israeli government way too conservative, myself among them; but are we all Anti-Semites? I think not. One other thing: I can agree that several of the statements she has made since being elected to congress indicate she still doesn't recognize historically anti-Jewish stereotypes; that too is not surprising, given that she didn't come here till the early 1990s and probably didn't study much Jewish history.
But downplaying the importance of 9/11? Expressing sympathy for those who attacked us? I'm a professor of media studies (including political communication), and when I heard the couple of short quotes that allegedly showed her hatred for America, I needed to hear the entire context of what she said. I know enough about how political outrage is generated, and I become suspicious when I see what looks like a coordinated strategy to make people furious; both political parties have their own provocateurs who are experts at doing it, using a process called framing. It's all about what you include, and what you intentionally exclude. So...you rip a quote out of context, create a false narrative to go along with the misleading quote, post it on social media sites your followers use, and assume you'll get away with the deception because partisans want to believe the worst about "the other side." You can easily get like-minded people angry at what the person allegedly said, plus it's also a great tactic for raising money. "Can you believe what [so-and-so] just did? Make a donation right now and help me fight against [that horrible person]!!!"
But when I watched her entire speech, it was pretty clear that she was not downplaying 9/11. When she said "somebody did something," she was expressing it in an awkward way, but the context of her remarks was obvious: no matter what terrible thing happens, if the somebody who did it is a Muslim, many Americans immediately suspect ALL Muslims; and after 9/11, there was so much anger and distrust that American Muslims were in danger of losing their civil liberties. She was also right about the tendency to stereotype Muslims as terrorists: if a white male commits an act of terror, few of us blame ALL white males. But when those terrorists, most of whom came from Saudi Arabia, attacked America on 9/11, many people called for a crackdown on ALL Muslims. To President Bush's credit, he insisted he was not at war with Islam nor with American Muslims. But unfortunately, political discourse has deteriorated since then, and accusing or blaming ALL Muslims has become a normal part of conservative commentary.
And that's my lesson in political communication: sad to say, there are folks on social media who intentionally create narratives that are designed to manipulate you and make you angry. Next time you see one, I hope you'll resist the temptation to "forward this to everyone you know." And in this case, it's especially urgent for everyone to stop and think. Whether you like Ilhan Omar or whether you don't, it's wrong for her to be receiving a growing number of death threats, and it's doubly wrong for her to be blamed for something she never really said. Meanwhile, it's just another day in our outrage culture; and as long as there's an audience for it, and as long as folks can get more "likes" on social media or bigger ratings on cable TV, it will probably continue...despite the potentially dangerous consequences this kind of discourse can bring.
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