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When a hate crimes hearing goes very wrong, something’s not right in America

Casting a shadow on the hearing, as he does on everything, was the president

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, left, and ranking member Doug Collins both condemned white nationalism Tuesday. But the hearing quickly devolved into a shameful spectacle, Curtis writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, left, and ranking member Doug Collins both condemned white nationalism Tuesday. But the hearing quickly devolved into a shameful spectacle, Curtis writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — When people are being threatened, intimidated and murdered, you would think that partisan bickering would take a back seat. But this is the U.S. Congress we’re talking about. Instead, what was supposed to be an examination of white nationalism and the rise of hate crimes on Tuesday devolved into what Americans have wearily begun to expect from their elected representatives. The House Judiciary Committee members inhabited different parties and different planets.

When what’s at stake is this serious, that’s pretty frightening.

The numbers tell the story of the rise in violence targeting people based on religion, race and sexual orientation. The number of incidents involving hate crimes increased for a third straight year in 2017, according to FBI data released last November. Hate crime incidents rose by 17 percent in 2017 compared to 2016. From 2015 to 2016, the FBI reported a 5 percent increase.

Those investigating motives behind three recent church fires in Louisiana, churches with predominantly black congregations, are considering the possibility that white supremacists may be responsible. That’s probably wise since church burnings have long been an intimidation tactic, and places of worship in America’s past and present have been the site of cold-blooded killings by domestic terrorists with twisted agendas.

Law enforcement agencies have admitted they have fallen short in the fight against far-right militant extremism, and after years of neglect have some catching up to do. The lives of those taken and those left behind depend on getting this right.

Tuesday’s hearing could have been a start. And in case anyone thought otherwise, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top-ranking Republican in a hearing led by Democrats, was careful to state that “nothing white nationalists claim resonates with any of us here today.”

Certainly, the testimony of Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha made clear the human costs of such hatred. He lost two daughters and a son-in-law in 2015, executed by the young couple’s Chapel, Hill, North Carolina, neighbor who had harassed them, they had told Abu-Salha, because of their Muslim dress and demeanor. “We miss our children so much,” he said, grieving family members who had volunteered in their community and beyond. “At times the pain is just as sharp now as when they died. I ask you, I truly plead to you, not to let another American family go through this because our government would not act to protect all Americans.”

Eileen Hershenov, senior vice president of the Anti-Defamation League, listed statistics that showed the rise of murders attributed to white supremacists.

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, spoke of hate groups finding the like-minded on social media. “Instead of hiding under hoods, they now organize at computer screens,” she said, while representatives of social media and internet platforms sat nearby.

Yet all that urgency seems to have missed some GOP members of the committee, whose invited witnesses pushed a narrative at odds with the very purpose of the hearing.

One of them, Candace Owens, a onetime Trump critic turned Trump supporter and conservative icon, made it all about, well, Candace Owens, especially when she aimed indignation not at the hate crimes in question, which she seemed to downplay, but at committee member Ted Lieu of California, who played a brief recording of some of her own words.

After Lieu used a portion of her controversial remarks on how its association with Adolf Hitler had poisoned the concept of “nationalism,” Owens, who is African-American, said, “I think it’s pretty apparent that Mr. Lieu believes that black people are stupid and will not pursue the full clip in its entirety,” doubling down on that race card she reliably condemns as a tactic of the left.

Owens also used her time to call the GOP “Southern strategy” a myth, in spite of the apologies of several of its architects, such as former RNC Chair Ken Mehlman and the late Lee Atwater, for stoking racial resentment to win white votes after the Democratic Party became the party of civil rights.

I saw the fallout up close when my mother, an active Republican, became disgusted by the speeches of Ronald Reagan and other GOP leaders, demonizing the “strapping young buck” buying steaks with food stamps and the welfare queens of their imagination, and forgetting the hard-working black folks who had stuck it out with the party of Lincoln.

Instead of the “Blexit” Owens promotes, in which black folks reject Democratic Party affiliation, she might read up on why so many deserted the GOP in the first place.

The reaction of Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado showed he and several other GOP committee members had less interest in exploring the increase in hate crimes and more in trolling their Democratic colleagues. “I think you’ve caused my friends on the left to go to their safe spaces,” he said to Owens, and invited her to go shooting with him in his home state.

Casting a shadow on the hearing, as he often does on everything, was the president. Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York said in his opening remarks: “Unfortunately, in a time when leadership is needed, the president’s rhetoric fans the flames with language that, whether intentional or not, may motivate or embolden white supremacist movements.”

Trump’s fiery words on immigration, legal and otherwise, loomed over the proceedings, as he cleaned house at the Department of Homeland Security, looking for someone tougher than the leaders who separated parents from children, and railed at judges who have halted his restrictive plans in the court. With hardline adviser Stephen Miller at Trump’s side, expect more camera-ready cruelty.

The bizarre yet fitting coda to this week’s hearing was the disabling of comments on the live stream of the event — because of a constant stream of racist and hateful invective.

For anyone else, that would seem to prove why the day and the hearing mattered. For Louie Gohmert, it was a chance to spin yet another absurd conspiracy. “Could that be another hate hoax?” the Texas Republican asked. “Just keep an open mind.”

His words, and the entire spectacle, had to be none too comforting for a country grappling with the consequences of what hate has wrought.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3. 

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