“Some people did something.”
Uttered by Rep. Ilhan Omar more than three weeks ago during a speech to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, these four words have set off yet another firestorm of controversy engulfing the congresswoman and triggering a direct war of words with President Donald Trump.
Omar’s offhand reference to what still stands as the worst terrorist attack in recorded history is jarring, to say the least. The 9/11 attacks killed nearly 3,000 Americans, injured 6,000 more, caused $10 billion of damage and plunged this country into war.
Omar was still a teenager in 2001, a Somali refugee who had become a U.S. citizen just the year before. What possessed her to speak so lightly of such a devastating blow against her adopted country is unknown. Even in the context of her speech, which dealt largely with Muslims and civil rights in American society, the seeming nonchalance of the phrase stings.
That said, the outsized reaction to those four words reflects a pathologically polarized political scene whose participants are unwilling to let any perceived slight go by, and will stoke the outrage machine at any provocation. Trump, who never passes up an opportunity to divide rather than unite, lashed out with full fury at Omar, even releasing a video that juxtaposed her comments with images of the 9/11 attacks. The video got 9 million views. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi now is seeking additional protection for Omar, as death threats ramp up.
This Editorial Board has noted before Omar’s seeming penchant for controversial remarks that have the capacity to undermine her ability to effectively represent her district. The key to her thinking may lie in another, less noted remark in her speech: “So to me, I say, raise hell, make people uncomfortable. Because here’s the truth: For 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.”
Frankly, that is not so different from the victimhood that the president has trafficked in to stoke his supporters’ ire. Both styles are divisive and invite retaliation and escalation.
Americans need to take a step back from the constant outrage. It has become impossible to separate the genuine from the theatrical. Neither serves much purpose at this point.
The image of Minnesotans, lined up on opposite sides of a road in advance of Trump’s visit to Burnsville on Monday, was a chilling one. Supporters on one side, opponents on the other, jeering and yelling at one another across the divide.
Omar has worked on substantive issues since arriving in Congress. She was a strong advocate for Liberians who faced deportation. She introduced the first bill to reimburse federal workers for child care costs during the government shutdown. She has co-sponsored dozens of bills and offered amendments adopted into some. That’s not bad for a freshman legislator of less than four months.
But such public service is seldom what she talks about. We’d like to see her highlight that work more and stop trying so hard to “raise hell.” We’d like the president to do the same.