A tense exchange between right-wing commentator Candace Owens and California Democrat Ted Lieu dominated news coverage of a US congressional committee hearing on “hate crimes and the rise of white nationalism.”
Another moment, little noticed by those outside the packed hearing room on April 9 because it didn’t generate lefty memes or “own the libs” video clips, was much more telling about the collapse of civility in American politics.
Towards the end of the hearing, a controversial witness invited by Republican lawmakers berated the father of two women slaughtered in an alleged hate crime, attacking his religion after he recounted gruesome details of his children’s death. The lack of outrage over the incident, in the hearing room or outside of it, seems to mark the mainstreaming of a new direction for US political discourse, one in which the basic tenets of human decency have all but been discarded.
Here’s what happened
Witnesses at the hearing included Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, father of two young women killed execution-style, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in what the family believes was a hate crime. Early in the hearing, Abu-Salha described their death, and the killing of his son-in-law who was shot alongside them, to the packed room:
I must be one of a few physicians, if not the only one, to read his own children’s murder autopsy reports. They are seared into my memory. Bullets macerated through the top of Yusor’s and Razan’s heads into their brain stems with the gun nozzle leaving a mark on their hijabs and skin. Deah took many bullets to his arms and chest before he fell down to the ground. After shooting Yusor and Razan through their brains, the murderer saw that Deah was breathing and shot him again in the mouth. The last time we saw them in their coffins, Yusor’s forehead was bulging and her hazel eyes had turned grey and lifeless. What was once Razan’s warm and smiling face filled with life was now a lifeless stone cold and pasty deadly pale. Deah’s face lacked expression and he had a broken tooth from that final shot to the mouth; while taking his last breath, he raised his index finger which is what we consider a sign of prayer.
Republicans were not interested in talking about the well-documented rise in hate crimes or right-wing extremism in the US, instead giving their witnesses the opportunity to make factually incorrect statements about American history and accuse Democrats of using scare tactics. Morton Klein, president of the Zionists Organization of America, used one such opportunity to chide Abu-Salha.
“We really need to have Muslims step up and do what [Egyptian] president Sisi says, there needs to be a reaffirmation and a rethinking of the parts of the Koran” that target Jews, Klein said. “Why are one-third of Muslims in America anti-Semitic? This has to explored…We have to talk about this Muslim anti-Semitism.”
It is inaudible in the C-SPAN clip of Klein’s statement, but several people in the packed hearing room gasped at his remarks. Newcomers to the US have long documented the strange niceties of “small talk” in the US, the way Americans greet one another pleasantly and—at least face-to-face—seem to value “manners,” throw around “thank yous”, and pride themselves on human interaction. It is a far cry from how Americans treat each other online or the racist realities of everyday life for many Americans. And yet, under the notion of decency many Americans still cling to, Klein’s remarks seem unfathomable.
No one spoke up
At the House hearing, not a single member of Congress, not even the Democrats who invited Abu-Salha, chastised Klein. Instead, Abu-Salha was asked multiple times whether Islam teaches hatred. No one highlighted the well-documented history of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia among US Christians.
Shamelessness has become an increasingly important attribute in modern American politics, as Axios noted in February, one epitomized by Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s refusal to step down after a blackface yearbook picture emerged from medical school and Ohio’s Jim Jordan’s keeping his House seat despite overseeing a college wrestling program rife with sexual abuse.
But the ability to show decency towards another human being who just recounted the horrific slaying of his own children should be one of the most basic traits we all share. Turning on the father instead marks a new American low.