After a horrific attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, last month and repeated warnings about the resurgent threat of far-right violence in the United States, the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing on white nationalism was meant to show the threat was being taken seriously.
Instead, it devolved into a tedious political tit-for-tat. Questions about how best to tackle hate crimes, the online proliferation of white nationalism, and law enforcement’s mixed response to the threat were derailed by discussions about Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-MN) supposed anti-Semitism and conservative activist Candace Owens’ claims that Democrats were the real racists.
Both sides of the aisle were eager to note just how forcefully, at least superficially, they condemned white nationalism. Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) opened the hearings by saying it was “sadly necessary to examine an urgent crisis in our country.” Ranking member Doug Collins (R-GA), meanwhile, claimed that House Republicans had “led the chamber’s unequivocal revocation of white nationalism.”
Collins was referring to his colleague, Rep. Steve King (R-IA), a white nationalist who would have been at the hearing had he not lost his seat on the committee after lamenting to The New York Times about how terms like “white nationalism” and “white supremacy” became offensive.
Some of those testifying did address glaring problems in the current approach to combating white nationalism. Eileen Hershenov of the Anti-Defamation League noted how fringe online communities like Gab and 8chan had created “24/7 white nationalist rallies.” Kristen Clarke of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law asked why the FBI had devoted resources to investigating Black Identity Extremists while allowing white supremacist movements to grow at an alarming rate.
The most touching testimony came from Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, whose two daughters and son-in-law were murdered in 2015 in what he described as a hate crime. Abu-Salha made a heartfelt plea to the committee to improve hate crime prosecutions and more aggressively counter hate speech.
“Families like mine – regular Americans living regular lives – are left without hope that justice will truly be served,” he said. “Because the climate of bigotry is getting worse, I am gravely worried that more tragedies will happen if action is not taken at all levels of government.”
But further probing of these issues was impeded by two conservative “experts,” Mort Klein of the Zionist Organization of America and Owens, the director of advocacy at the right-wing group Turning Points USA. Their testimonies barely touched on the issue at hand and instead focused on a handful of pet issues.
Despite speaking just minutes after Hershenov and Dr. Abu-Salha, Klein quickly dismissed the notion that the far-right was responsible for any resurgence in hate crimes. Instead, he describe the Christchurch shooter as a left-wing eco-fascist (he wasn’t), said the media had misconstrued Trump’s Charlottesville comments (in most cases it didn’t) and, perhaps most infuriatingly, suggested that Muslims needed to “step it up” when it came to combating anti-Semitism and hate crimes.
Owens, meanwhile, used the hearing as an excuse to deploy the exact same routine she used during her speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February. She claimed Democrats were the real racists, that there was no issue with rising white nationalism, and suggested the entire hearing was a political ploy to frighten minority voters.
“The hearing today is not about white nationalism or hate crimes, it’s about fear-mongering, power, and control,” Owens said. “The goal here is to scare blacks, Hispanics, gays and Muslims, helping [Democrats] censor dissenting opinions… helping them regain control.”
Owens’ testimony, unsurprisingly, was received warmly by Republicans, with committee members frequently yielding their time to her so that she could talk about her own personal experiences — none of which gave much insight into the rising threat of white nationalism. At one point, Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) congratulated her, saying that she’d caused “my friends on the left to go into their safe spaces.”
Democrats were less welcoming. In one particularly testy exchange, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) replayed remarks Owens had made previously in which she had praised Hitler’s desire to “make Germany great.”
Owens responded by claiming Lieu was racist. “I think its apparent that Mr. Lieu thinks that black people are stupid and will not pursue the full clip in its entirety,” she said before Nadler cut her off.
The committee’s inability to move past even establishing a consensus on white nationalism, coupled with the disparaging remarks against Dr. Abu-Saha’s experience, left attendees extraordinarily frustrated.
“The fact that Dr. Abu-Salha who had lost two of his daughters and his son-in-law, and then for two of the three questions to be about whether your kids were taught to hate as Muslims — for that to happen is so traumatizing,” said Darakshan Raja of the Justice for Muslims Collective. “This was supposed to be about white nationalism and hate, and it ended up being not about that at all. It ended up being about the people who were being targeted by hate violence the most.”
“I think that’s really disappointing,” added Lakshmi Sridaran, also of the Justice for Muslims Collective. “In 2017, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on hate crimes … and Chairman Chuck Grassley actually said that, if there were any witnesses chosen by the Democrats who critiqued the Trump administration, [he would] cancel the hearing and there [would be] no Muslim or Arab witnesses.”
Turning her ire at the other side of the aisle, she added, “The Democrats chose to allow these witnesses to come in today and essentially discredit this panel.”