O'Reilly Tries To Grasp Complex Argument From Melissa Harris-Perry, Fails

Blog ››› ››› TODD GREGORY

Every year, the progressive group Campaign for America's Future hosts a conference called Take Back the American Dream. At this year's event, held this week in Washington, MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry gave a speech about the "choices that we, as ordinary citizens and Americans, made" over the past decade. One part of the speech dealt with the effects of the September 11 attacks on policymaking and how fear motivated many of the actions that the government took.

On his June 20 Fox News show, Bill O'Reilly attacked Harris-Perry over this section of the speech, claiming she said that "we, the United States, are racists because we defended ourselves against radical Islam after 9/11."

It is a huge stretch to read that into what she said.

In an outraged lead-in, O'Reilly described Harris-Perry as "an NBC News anchor -- an anchor," and then showed a clip of her saying this:

Americans in part identify who we are and who deserves what through our notions of whiteness and of the racial enemies that are the nonwhites. And in this moment, the new racial enemy became not so much Reagan's welfare queen, who was imaginary, but instead this imagined other that is somehow Muslim or Arab or Sikh or something else. We became willing to stomach a kind of horrific racial violence in the name of national security. It's something that we have been willing to stomach as a people over and over again in our history.

After the clip, O'Reilly said, "Unbelievable. So, we, the United States, are racists because we defended ourselves against radical Islam after 9/11."

First of all, O'Reilly and his audience would have had a much better sense of what Harris-Perry was talking about if O'Reilly had shown the very next part of her speech:

HARRIS-PERRY: The Patriot Act was not an act of a Republican president acting alone. The Patriot Act was a bipartisan decision by both parties. It was not bought and paid for by corporations; it was bought and paid for by our fear. As much as we have our eyes on the Citizens United decision, we have to remember that it was our collective angst -- maybe not the people in this room, but our collective angst that gave permission to Democrats in the House to rally behind Republicans in the White House under the banner of nationalist patriotic security with the goal of both reducing our domestic civil liberties and giving us an entrance into what is, at this moment, an everlasting war. We made those choices.

So, Harris-Perry wasn't saying that we are "racists" for "defend[ing] ourselves" -- she was talking about worries over the Patriot Act and the curtailment of civil liberties, especially for racial and religious minorities. To her point, the group Muslim Advocates released a report last year that discussed ongoing concerns in the Muslim community about an erosion of rights and its connection to the Patriot Act.

There is also plenty of support for the idea that there was an explicitly racial component to our reaction to September 11. In the days after the attacks, the federal government rounded up hundreds of people on minor immigration violations, most of them Muslim and Arab men.

A 2003 report from CQ Press highlighted the problems with this sweep:

In fact, none of the detainees were ever charged with crimes related to Sept. 11, writes Georgetown University law Professor David Cole in a new book about civil liberties and terrorism, and only two or three proved to have any terrorism ties, such as donating money to organizations with links to terrorists.

According to the [DOJ] inspector general, the government cast too wide a net. "The FBI should have taken more care to distinguish between aliens whom it actually suspected of having a connection to terrorism from those aliens who, while possibly guilty of violating federal immigration law, had no connection to terrorism but simply were encountered in connection with an investigative lead," the report said.

The report also criticized the government's "hold until clear" policy, which kept immigrants behind bars longer than necessary because overworked FBI agents often took months to clear detainees of any terrorism ties. [emphasis added]

In the country more broadly, hate crimes against Muslims soared in the period after September 11. As the Los Angeles Times reported in 2002, "The FBI found that while attacks against Muslims had previously been the least common hate crime against a religious group -- just 28 in 2000 -- the number of incidents surged to 481 in 2001, an increase of 1,600%."

Likewise, Harris-Perry's point about the United States accepting "a kind of horrific racial violence," especially in times of national distress, is also well grounded. Anyone who has read a basic American history textbook could provide examples, from the Alien and Sedition Acts to the Chinese Exclusion Act to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

But O'Reilly didn't discuss any of this. Instead, he provided his viewers with a distorted framing of Harris-Perry's remarks that had been cooked up by right-wing blogs.

Below is transcript of a portion of Harris-Perry's June 18 remarks at the Take Back the American Dream Conference (beginning at about the 20:00 mark):

HARRIS-PERRY: We did not know then [in 2000] that just a few months into the first year of George W. Bush's presidency that it would no longer be the good times, it would no longer be a time of economic expansion, it would no longer be a time of relative international peace, but instead that the new era would begin, when Americans finally came into where many of our trading partners, political partners, and allies had been for decades, which is the age of contemporary terrorism. Americans, of course, responded in very typically American ways to that entrée into something that many people in the rest of the world had already experienced. We began with a kind of nationalist fervor that was justified as reasonable patriotism. I like to point out that we clearly must have been having post-traumatic stress disorder because for about a year after September 11th, there were African-American men walking around the city of New York with NYPD hats on. That can only be explained as a PTSD response. But -- I know, we'll just let that -- let you sit with that for a bit.

But the other thing that happens in that moment -- I don't want to miss this -- is that a new version of what America typically needs emerge, and that is a racial enemy. Americans in part identify who we are and who deserves what through our notions of whiteness and of the racial enemies that are the nonwhites. And in this moment, the new racial enemy became not so much Reagan's welfare queen, who was imaginary, but instead this imagined other that is somehow Muslim or Arab or Sikh or something else. We became willing to stomach a kind of horrific racial violence in the name of national security. It's something that we have been willing to stomach as a people over and over again in our history.

The Patriot Act was not an act of a Republican president acting alone. The Patriot Act was a bipartisan decision by both parties. It was not bought and paid for by corporations; it was bought and paid for by our fear. As much as we have our eyes on the Citizens United decision, we have to remember that it was our collective angst -- maybe not the people in this room, but our collective angst that gave permission to Democrats in the House to rally behind Republicans in the White House under the banner of nationalist patriotic security with the goal of both reducing our domestic civil liberties and giving us an entrance into what is, at this moment, an everlasting war. We made those choices.

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