Calls for “civility” in politics are as likely to elicit ridicule as they are plaudits these days, due in large part to their repeated deployment in the face of escalating state violence. Those who insist that, for example, former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has the right to dine at restaurants without being confronted by angry constituents betray a disconnect in how different Americans view accountability for government officials: Some feel that locking children in cages makes Nielsen fair game for a public reckoning, no matter when or where she is; others believe that her job entitles her to a respectful distance between her life as a public figure and as a private citizen.
Where one falls on this spectrum in any given instance is often, but not always, a partisan calculation. Representative Andy Barr of Kentucky provides a recent example of how malleable the standards can be. There was nothing civil about Barr’s Republican colleague, Dan Crenshaw, implying last week that Ilhan Omar said the 9/11 terrorist attacks were trivial events, setting in motion a right-wing outrage cycle that culminated in an inflammatory video tweeted by the president and death threats against the congresswoman. Yet it was Crenshaw whom Barr saw fit to defend in the name of civility after Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accused him of “[drumming] resentment” toward Omar. “Your recent comments about Congressman Crenshaw demonstrate a lack of civility that is becoming far too common in the U.S. House of Representatives,” Barr wrote in a letter to the Bronx congresswoman demanding an apology, which he then tweeted to the public.
Ocasio-Cortez’s incivility, in Barr’s view, stemmed from her claim that Crenshaw has done little to support 9/11 victims or curb right-wing domestic terrorism, which of late has killed more Americans than any other kind. A former Navy SEAL, Crenshaw is one of many Republican members of Congress who have not supported renewing the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. Their reticence has placed its survival on shaky ground, even as the number of incoming claims rises to unprecedented levels. “In 2018, right-wing extremists were behind almost all U.S. domestic terror killings,” Ocasio-Cortez added. “Why don’t you go do something about that.” Barr addressed this claim by pointing to Crenshaw’s military service in Afghanistan. “Not only has Congressman Crenshaw ‘done something’ to combat terrorism, he was wounded by an improvised explosive device (IED) while serving.”
Enlisting in the armed forces has little to do with combating white-supremacist extremism domestically — which, on the contrary, has found plenty of foot soldiers among both active and former service members. Nor is Barr an ideal ambassador for defending the military’s merits: One of his more famous attack lines in the 2018 midterms against his Democratic opponent — Amy McGrath, a former Marine combat aviator — entailed equating his service as a politician with hers as a soldier, and then contrasting the two by saying his was a job “where ideas matter.” In fact, Barr did not engage substantively with any of Ocasio-Cortez’s critiques — which was the point, really. He seemed interested in scoring political points against her and little else. In doing so, he made clear that there is little merit to a civility that gives a free pass to Dan Crenshaw for drawing on Islamophobic stereotypes to mischaracterize Omar’s words — especially knowing how beset she is already by right-wing threats — but cries foul when Ocasio-Cortez speaks honestly about his record on the issues that he claims to care about.
Ocasio-Cortez was not taking Crenshaw to task merely because she enjoyed it. She was denouncing a colleague who had warped another colleague’s words to cast her as a terrorist sympathizer. Listening to Omar’s remarks in Los Angeles last month, where she declared that American Muslims like her had been transformed into a perpetual suspect caste because “some people did something” — referencing the handful of Islamists who committed the 9/11 attacks — it requires a profound ungenerosity to interpret them as trivializing the attacks themselves. That is, unless one is predisposed to believe what the right seems intent on propagandizing about the Minnesota congresswoman: that she is somehow linked, or at least sympathetic, to the violent ideology that precipitated 2,997 murders. It is difficult to imagine the blade cutting the other way: As Elizabeth Spiers writes for GQ, plenty of Republicans “refer to 9/11 in passing all the time without rending their clothes, publicly grieving in demonstrative ways, and going out of their way to emphasize that the terrorists were evil. They are allowed to use oblique descriptions like ‘when the towers fell’ or ‘the events of 9/11.’ We all know what they’re talking about, and no one thinks they’re reducing the terrorist attacks to a meaningless abstraction.”
Crenshaw embraced this Islamophobic line of attack anyway. And there is little doubt that doing so has material implications — Omar has said that she receives regular death threats, and the FBI recently arrested a New York man for threatening to “put a bullet in her fucking skull.” President Trump, following Crenshaw’s lead, tweeted a video interspersing her remarks with actual footage of the airplanes colliding with the Twin Towers. Through it all, Andy Barr said nothing. As with the rest of his Republican colleagues, the Kentucky congressman allowed a willful misreading of Omar’s remarks to serve as unchallenged pretext for dubious claims about her loyalty. And he did so knowing the potential dangers and recognizing that plausible deniability — namely, that Crenshaw and Trump did not explicitly call for Omar to be threatened — would shield them from having to take responsibility for whatever happened next.
Barr then invoked the need for civility in navigating the fallout — in particular, to ensure that Crenshaw’s behavior was not cast by Ocasio-Cortez as a referendum on his integrity. But the reality is that it was. If there was any dishonesty or maltreatment from one colleague to another at play here, it was that of the Texas congressman against Ilhan Omar. But good-faith interpretations of a Democratic colleague’s remarks do not fit Barr’s rubric for civility. It is for this reason that his conception of the term is useless, except as a political cudgel for him to use at will. By this definition, the kind of civility that Barr claims is missing in Congress is not missing at all. Bad-faith outcries about civility aimed at deflecting from Republican misdeeds are the order of the day.