The clearest takeaway from the conservative backlash to a deceptively edited Ilhan Omar interview with Al Jazeera is that those angered by it are not actually angry about bigotry, as they claim to be. Responding in 2018 to Mehdi Hassan’s questions about Islamophobia — and its proponents’ view that “legitimate fear” of Islam’s relationship to terrorism is behind it — the then-Minnesota state representative turned the “logic” of racial profiling on its head. “I would say that our country should be more fearful of white men across our country because they are actually causing most of the deaths within this country,” Omar said, “and so if fear was the driving source of policies to keep America safe, Americans safe inside of this country, we should be profiling, monitoring, and creating policies to fight the radicalization of white men.”
Empirically, Omar is right about domestic terrorism’s culprits: Since the September 11 attacks, more Americans have been killed on U.S. soil by non-Muslim white men — whether far-right, racist, or misogynist ideologues or mass shooters with less explicitly political motives, like Stephen Paddock in Las Vegas — than by jihadists. According to a tally by New America, a Washington-based research center, 104 people have been killed by terrorists claiming fealty to Islam over that period; 95 have been killed by far-right, white-supremacist, or misogynist terrorists and countless others, including the 58 in Vegas, have been killed in mass shootings committed by white men with less clear motives. Since Trump took office, far-right terrorists have killed more than twice as many people as Islamic extremists. If racial profiling was an effective way to prevent violence, the data suggests that white men would be its most logical targets.
But rather than examine this proposal’s merits or lack thereof, several high-profile conservatives have broadcast Omar’s interview as proof that she’s a bigot. Senator Marco Rubio on Thursday tweeted a clip that omitted the part where Omar qualifies her assertion with “[If] fear was the driving source of policies to keep America safe.” The resulting edit shows her saying, “[We] should be profiling, monitoring, and creating policies to fight the radicalization of white men,” without the crucial preceding clause. Rubio knows this, surely, but he still captioned his post “I am sure the media will now hound every Democrat to denounce this statement as racist. Right?” Glenn Beck, Dana Loesch, and Dave Rubin all amplified the doctored video, expressing their disbelief that Omar would dare to suggest profiling as a viable security tactic. Theirs appears to be a widely held sentiment: The video has 5.4 million views on Twitter as of Friday afternoon and close to 20,000 retweets.
Of course, none of these notable conservatives are actually opposed to profiling. Singling out massive groups of people for suspicion with no evidence besides their race, religion, or nationality is central to the law-enforcement ethos of President Trump, whom all of them doggedly support. Aside from building a wall to keep out Mexicans, Trump’s key national-security proposal involved banning Muslims from entering the United States — which he later implemented, albeit in narrower terms, under the guise of restrictions on migrants and refugees from some majority-Muslim countries. Trump has also praised the use of “stop and frisk” tactics by police, which were applied so discriminatorily in his native New York City that they became synonymous with the harassment of black and Hispanic people. He has even praised profiling by name. “I think profiling is something that we’re going to have to start thinking about as a country,” he told Face the Nation in June 2016, after the mass shooting committed by Omar Mateen in Orlando. “Our local police … are afraid to do anything about [investigating potential terrorists] because they don’t want to be accused of profiling,” he added on Fox News in September 2016. “You know, in Israel, they profile. They’ve done an unbelievable job — as good as you can do … And they’ll profile. They profile.” (Despite Trump’s zeal for profiling, his administration canceled funding for the only organization in the government’s Countering Violent Extremism Grant Program that dealt specifically with white supremacists.)
The issue for these conservatives, then, is clearly not whether profiling is okay but who it is being weaponized against. When Muslims are the target, it’s reasonable. Rubio, Beck, Loesch, and Rubin have either trafficked in the notion that Islam is fundamentally dangerous and suspicon toward its practitioners is warranted or they’ve given uncritical platforms to those who do. Of the four, only Rubio has expressed what could be characterized as trepidation about Trump’s bigotry in the past — and that’s putting it generously. In 2017, he said he was “uneasy” about Trump’s Muslim ban but did nothing to stop it. He has declined to call Trump a racist, instead decrying in general the bipartisan use of “identity politics,” such as when, earlier this month, the president told Omar and three other nonwhite Democratic congresswomen to “go back” to where they came from. (All four women are American.) It remains unclear what Rubio thinks circulating a doctored video aimed at fanning hostility toward a Muslim congresswoman by misleading viewers into believing she wants to profile white men is. Either way, his motive is clear: to intensify conservative animosity toward a woman whom the right has found great purpose in uniting against.
But when the same calculi used to mark Muslims as terrorists are used against white men, they become outrageous. Racism is why Omar’s suggestion is worthy of condemnation for Rubio & Co., but the suggestion that Muslims are dangerous is something to be amplified. Both positions cause their proponents to miss the essence of Omar’s point: that profiling tends to reflect the biases of those who employ it more than any lucid assessment of danger. This point is not lost on conservatives. It just doesn’t apply to them — Ilhan Omar is the real bigot, after all, and they are brave truth tellers who won’t let political correctness silence their warnings about the dangers of Islam.