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The House Judiciary Committee’s hearing on hate crimes and white nationalism was meant to be an opportunity to discuss the rising threat of far-right extremism and come up with targeted solutions.
Instead, Tuesday’s hearing regularly veered off course — and into some of the most bitterly partisan debates of the moment.
The congressional hearing was the first since the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to specifically address the threat posed by white nationalists. But Republican committee members and some of the panelists they’d invited railed against the media’s treatment of President Donald Trump, asked why they were discussing white nationalism instead of antifa, and yelled about Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, one of only two Muslim women ever elected to Congress.
Witnesses called to testify were a mixed bag: Among them were representatives from Facebook and Google, extremism experts, civil rights advocates, and conservative activists, including Candace Owens, a black woman known for her work with the controversial right-wing student group Turning Point USA.
“What I think the hearing illustrated is just how deep the political divisions are: so deep that we can’t have unanimity about hate crimes and white nationalism,” said Brian Levin, a national expert in hate crimes who heads the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “We’re on thin ice with all kinds of extremism — white nationalism in particular — and we missed a real opportunity to explore the risk.”
For example, Mohammad Abu-Salha, a grieving Muslim physician and father whose two daughters and son-in-law were murdered in an apparent hate crime at UNC Chapel Hill in 2015, was repeatedly made to answer for the crimes committed by fanatical jihadists.
At one point, Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America and a staunch Trump supporter, proceeded to lecture Abu-Salha about Islam. “I am confused when the good doctor says that Islam does not promote hatred of Jews,” Klein said. “We need to have Muslims step up.”
In his opening statement, Republican Rep. Doug Collins, a ranking committee member, alluded to the showdown over Omar’s position and asked why “a tolerance of Jewish stereotypes” had become acceptable among his colleagues.
Since taking office for the first time earlier this year, Omar has become the most vocal critic of Israel’s foregin policy and recently found herself at the center of a political maelstrom, in which Republicans and some Democrats likened her criticism of Israel to anti-Semitism.
“I was horrified to see Speaker Pelosi and Leader Hoyer defend Rep. Omar after her vicious anti-Semitic remarks,” Klein said. “That was unfair.” Klein also suggested that the white supremacist accused of murdering 50 Muslims at mosques in New Zealand was “left-wing.”
Republicans also bristled when Eva Paterson, the president and founder of the nonprofit civil rights group Equal Justice Society, suggested that Congress should condemn some of President Donald Trump’s more provocative remarks that she believes “emboldens white nationalists and white supremacists.”
“We understand the political dynamics, but we would love to see Republicans stand up and say, ‘Mr. Trump, what you’re saying is not helpful, it harms people of color, it harms Muslims,’” Paterson said.
“I would love to see my Democrat colleagues condemn anti-Semitism,” said Republican Rep. Greg Steube in response. “One of their own members of their own caucus has said very racist, anti-Semtic remarks, and they’ve failed to directly address it. To your point, I would love to see the other side of the aisle condemn one of their own for their own remarks.”
A “wasted” opportunity
Conservative activist Candace Owens, who House Republicans had invited to testify, argued in her opening statement that white nationalism wasn’t the real problem — but antifa. She also said Democrats were skewing hate crimes — which rose by 17 percent between 2016 and 2017, according to FBI data — to fit their agenda.
“White supremacy, white nationalism,” Owens said. “Words that once held real meaning are now nothing more than an election strategy.”
For its part, the Arab American Institute called the hearing a “wasted” opportunity to substantively address the problem of hate crimes. “Instead of a hearing combating hate, it became a platform for it,” Director Maya Berry said in a statement.
Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu also waded into partisan matters, when he noted that “of all the people Republicans could have selected, they picked Candace Owens.”
“I don’t know Ms. Owens,” Lieu said. “I’m going to let her own words do the talking.” Then, Lieu proceeded to play a video clip of Owens from December, in which she complains about the fact that the word “nationalism” has become associated with Hitler.
"If Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well — OK, fine," Owens said in the video. "The problem is, he wanted, he had dreams outside of Germany. He wanted to globalize. He wanted everybody to be German.”
Owens later clarified her comments and called Hitler a “homicidal, psychopathic maniac.” Lieu asked Eileen Hershenov, senior vice president of policy at the Anti-Defamation League whether she believed remarks like Owens’ “feed into white nationalist ideology.”
The “Blexit campaign”
Rep. Steve Chabot from Ohio focused his line of questioning on discrimination against conservatives — and asked Owens to talk about her “Blexit campaign,” which encourages black Democrats to defect to the GOP.
“I stopped reacting emotionally, which is what Democrats want us to do when they hold up pictures of burning churches,” Owens said, in reference to the three black churches in Louisiana that were recently burned over a 10-day period.
And Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert used his audience with a representative from Facebook to demand why his friends, two MAGA-loving black sisters known as “Diamond and Silk,” were having problems using the platform.
“Everytime we say something nice about Donald Trump [on Facebook] we spent forever trying to prove we are not a Russian robot,” said Gohmert, paraphrasing Diamond and Silk.
Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler, the committee’s chairman, noted that YouTube had been forced to disable the live chat function for its broadcast of the hearing, due to a flood of comments from racist and alt-right trolls. He read out a few of the comments, and Gohmert cut him off asking whether perhaps the YouTube story was a “hate hoax.”
Without naming any names, Rep. David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island, called out some of the panelists and said they’d twisted the purpose of the hearing to suit their own agenda.
“I regret that there are some on this panel who have tried to hijack this hearing and desecrate the lives lost to the hate crimes and violence of white supremacists by attempting to use this as an opportunity to promote a political position or political party,” he said. “I think that is despicable and deeply regrettable.”
Cover image: Candace Owens of Turning Point USA testifies during a House Judiciary Committee hearing discussing hate crimes and the rise of white nationalism on Capitol Hill on April 9, 2019 in Washington, DC. Internet companies have come under fire recently for allowing hate groups on their platforms. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)