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Is it that hard to be a leader for all Americans?

Republicans should resist pouring gasoline on the Islamophobia fire

Republican presidential candidates at the party's third primary debate in Miami on Nov. 8.
Republican presidential candidates at the party's third primary debate in Miami on Nov. 8. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

It’s “so-called Islamophobia,” at least according to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who used that label to deride President Joe Biden’s efforts to counter every kind of hate in a diverse America. Mr. Governor, please tell that to the family and friends of 6-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume, a child of Palestinian descent, born in the good old USA, who was stabbed 26 times, allegedly by his landlord and neighbor.

In the last debate of Republicans who hope to be their party’s presidential nominee, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was asked about Wadea’s murder, and the violence that has spread from the Middle East to America. It was right after DeSantis, doing his very best Donald Trump impression, had delivered his “tough guy” pronouncement about which Americans deserve protection.

It gave Christie a chance to distinguish himself among those on the stage, acknowledging that intolerance knows no limits, especially in times of war. Christie described his post-9/11 efforts, after he was tapped on Sept. 10, 2001, to be U.S. attorney for New Jersey, to tamp down “explosive” emotions in a state with citizens who did not look nor worship the same, and may have had different views on life and politics.

It’s not that Christie doesn’t support Israel and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, wholeheartedly, and endorse the country’s right to defend itself after a surprise Hamas terrorist attack. Christie’s words that night, and in a subsequent visit to Israel, have only reinforced this notion of backing whatever actions Israel views as necessary. His answer only sounded tame when compared with the four others on the stage, full of bluster and slogans for Israel to “finish the job.”

How could they ever hope to govern a country that is a lot more messily diverse than the Garden State, full of Americans whose opinions don’t fit into neat categories?

The rhetoric sounded far less nuanced than what you can read in the pages of Israel’s Haaretz. Its columnists, while steadfast in their condemnation of the horror and brutality of the terrorist attack and the taking of hostages whose fate remains uncertain, have not been shy about criticizing the actions and tactics of prime minister Netanyahu, before and after Oct. 7.

I was reminded about another debate, one I witnessed in a divisive time, with a lineup of GOP presidential nominee hopefuls that included Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, playing to a South Carolina crowd. When the moderator asked about a hypothetical terrorist attack on America, all conjured up scenes of torture, invoking the tactics of then-popular TV hero Jack Bauer, who, in the show “24,” regularly extracted information in the most gruesome way possible.

Except, that is, for the late Sen. John McCain, the only one on the stage who had been tortured, for years, in a Vietnamese prison. “It’s not about the terrorists, it’s about us,” he said. “It’s about what kind of country we are.”

It’s not easy to take an unpopular stand when emotion and an understandable desire for payback pushes in another direction. And in 2007, while the others were bathed in cheers, McCain’s remarks were greeted with silence.

Isn’t that what leaders do, though: express thoughtful opinions that might not be popular in the moment?

Today, it is possible to condemn the Hamas attack on Israelis, demand the release of hostages who must be experiencing unimaginable terror and express empathy for innocent Palestinians, many of them now-orphaned and injured children, suffering without food, medicine, water and fuel, huddled in hospitals and United Nations shelters in Gaza. You can admire the brave medical personnel in Israel and Gaza. You can fight both antisemitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.

You would think seeing the humanity in Israeli and Palestinian innocents alike is somehow impossible if you listened only to those on the GOP debate stage last week or to Rep. Brian Mast, the Florida Republican, who questioned the existence of “innocent Palestinian civilians,” or to the Florida state legislator, whose response “all of them” came quickly after a colleague, speaking in favor of a ceasefire and counting 10,000 dead Palestinians, asked: “How many will be enough?” 

Then-President George W. Bush, on Sept. 17, 2001, visited an Islamic center to deliver a message that those who flew planes into buildings and murdered thousands did not represent Islam. “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam,” Bush said. “That’s not what Islam is all about.” Muslims, along with Americans of every race and faith, were among the dead, as well as the first responders and helpers. 

But that was a different time and a different GOP.

Today, the Republican Party’s leader is Trump, whose rhetoric becomes more heated with each day and each rally. He is the man, remember, who falsely characterized Muslim Americans as celebrating terrorism and tried to “other” then-President Barack Obama by casting him as someone who was not born in America. Dividing the country into us vs. them has worked out quite well for him — if you ignore the 91 felony counts he is facing, at least.

Marking Veterans Day, Trump, who in the past has disrespected those who served, including McCain, this year used the occasion to paint a dark vision, one backed up by reporting, of his plans should he be elected in 2024. His blueprint for division includes prosecuting perceived political opponents, staffing the government with those who answer to him rather than the Constitution and banning immigrants and visitors from certain countries, anyone with views he judges unacceptable.

“Vermin,” he called “the threat from within,” using language authoritarians have always employed to dehumanize, making it easy to see a mother and child in Illinois as dangerous invaders who must be destroyed.

Trump has received little pushback from those in his party; they will most likely nominate him again. How does Wadea fit into their America?

I appreciated debate moderators recalling the 6-year-old whose image is hard to forget. Photos show him in his “Happy Birthday” hat, frozen in full stride while waving an American flag, just having fun. His mother, Hanaan Shahin, critically injured in the attack that killed her son, comes home to an empty apartment and an America she may not recognize as her family’s refuge from the West Bank, a region now roiled by attacks by Israeli settlers.

A far-away war has come to a divided America, with too many would-be leaders eager to pour gasoline on a burning fire and too few rushing to extinguish the flames.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on X @mcurtisnc3.

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