Another Manufactured Outrage: Rep. Ilhan Omar Did Nothing Wrong in Listing Hamas, Israel, and U.S. Together

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN). Image: Lorie Shaull/Wikimedia Commons

Last week, Representative Ilhan Omar asked Secretary of State Tony Blinken a straightforward question. It was prompted by recent cases brought to the International Criminal Court (ICC) alleging war crimes, or crimes against humanity, by both Israel and Hamas in Israel/Palestine, and by Afghan, Taliban and American forces in Afghanistan. The ICC, based in the Hague, is charged with prosecuting these terrible crimes and its right to do so has been ratified by over 100 countries, though not the United States or Israel. 

Her question was not particularly controversial: “If domestic courts can’t or won’t pursue justice,” she asked, “and we oppose the ICC, where do we think the victims of these supposed crimes can go for justice?” She specifically noted that she meant accusations against all sides, Israel and Hamas, the Afghan government and the Taliban, and the United States itself. 

She then posted the video on twitter, writing, “We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity. We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban. I asked @SecBlinken where people are supposed to go for justice.” 

This summary introduction to a straightforward question evoked an avalanche of outrage by both Republicans and some Democrats. Sen. Tom Cotton, like many other Republicans, went so far as to question her American bona fides and almost literally told her to go back to where she came from, exposing the racist emotion underlying so much of this outrage. This is a dance we’ve seen before. So what exactly is their concern here?

Whenever outrage explodes against Rep. Omar, the first thing I do is step back and say to myself: Don’t assume anything positive or negative. Perhaps she said something truly wrong this time, perhaps it’s manufactured outrage, or perhaps it’s something in between. We all need to avoid the common fallacy of stretching to find any excuse to defend one’s “own side” no matter how implausible the interpretation, while stretching to find any excuse to convict the “other side,” even when the outrage seems manufactured or unfair. I know I can be as guilty of this error as the next person.

I first encountered the story on the Facebook page of a well-known historian, who called Omar “beneath contempt,” which stoked a chorus of more hatred, some of it very ugly, racist and/or misogynist. This instinctually led me to want to defend herbut still I wanted to know more for myself. 

I saw many people writing that she “literally equated” Hamas with Israel and America. I asked someone I know who is a strong opponent of hers and who said words to that effect if he could elaborate. It took some prodding, but he eventually admitted it was untrue, explaining that it was the way she framed her tweet. She made a list of actors who had committed crimes with victims that needed to go somewhere for justice. The implication, he said, was that they were the same.

Perhaps. Although an implication is a very different thing than a literal equation. 

Here are three thoughts about this alleged controversy that might be helpful, the third of which is the most important.

First, she did not literally equate these actors. That is simply false. Should she have added, as she did in her follow up clarification, some sense of differentiation? Should she have clarified that she was not making “a moral comparison between Hamas, the Taliban and the U.S. and Israel,” that she was “in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries with well-established judicial systems”?

Perhaps, although arguably this complaint comes far more from some nationalist pride that America (and Israel) are special and good, when in fact the body count from America alone is far greater. Think about the victims in Iraq. Think about crimes during the Vietnam War. Think about torture under the Bush administration. Think about complaints raised about American crimes in Afghanistan, including drone attacks, the specific subject of her question! It was none other than Martin Luther King Jr. who called America, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Of course, he was also called an anti-American domestic enemy for doing so.

I saw many people laugh at Hamas’s complaint about being compared to America, and while America is a democracy and Hamas is a terrorist organization, Americans might consider our own history. The shock of Trump praising Putin in 2017 and defending himself saying “You think [America] is so innocent” was offensive because of his celebration of authoritarian terror, not because he was wrong about America having done terrible things. 

As Rabbi Jill Jacobs of the rabbinical human rights organization Truah tweeted last week, “It’s true that both US & Israel have committed war crimes. It’s neither antisemitic nor anti-American to say so (as patriots of both countries do). Her words do not equate the US/Israel w/Hamas/Taliban, which carry out terror attacks against civilians.”

Moreover, Omar gets so much flak for not calling out Hamas and yet when she finally does, she gets flak for not doing it right. In any event, if one is of the opinion that she needed better differentiation and that therefore this warranted criticism, the criticism would be more effective if it were honest. And perhaps that would have lessened the number of death threats and other vile correspondences she has received.

Second, others have said that she deserved the criticism for its political harm, that this hurts the Democratic party. Perhaps, but that doesn’t make much sense either, because the manufactured outrage made it worse. If a Democratic leader had privately contacted her and said, “Ilhan, you have to clarify in the tweet that you do not think America is the same as Hamas (i.e. clarify that Hamas is worse), she would have done so immediately, as she did when they demanded it publicly. They chose instead to handle it this way and thereby amplify the manufactured crisis. In some cases, this was clearly for individual political benefit despite arguably hurting the party brand by doing so. Certainly, it can only help Brad Schneider in the 10th congressional district of Illinois to write what he did. 

Finally, and most importantly, anyone who’s angry about her should at least watch the video, which anecdotally very few seem to have done. Is she not asking a perfectly reasonable question? What are victims of state crimes to do if the state that inflicted violence on them won’t fairly adjudicate the case and if they cannot then go to the ICC? 

Moreover, although I respect Secretary Blinken a great deal, I am not at all satisfied with his answer. For example, West Bank Palestinians suffering violence by the Israeli state, or its citizens, cannot get justice from the Israeli system, which he said they could. This is widely documented. If our position in the United States is that we reject the ICC, where are these victims supposed to go? Rep. Omar’s original question is a fair one. 

Feeding these manufactured incidents—with incendiary language—when you don’t even know what happened isn’t just an innocent mistake or a byproduct of social media. Rep. Omar is getting death threats and this rhetoric is feeding that. Activists—especially progressive activists who recognize the power of rhetoric to create stochastic terror and who called out Trump for doing this very thing—might better consider the impact of their words.