Words Matter

U.S. media attention has been focused for days now on former Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro’s racially divisive remarks about Senator Barack Obama’s candidacy for president. On at least three occasions Ferraro has been quoted saying, "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept." An ugly comment to be sure, and deserving of criticism.

What concerns me, however, is that the near-exclusive focus on these comments has drowned out attention from earlier remarks made by Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King. In many ways, in a campaign season already marred by ugly bigotry, King’s words marked a new and dangerous low.

Here’s what he said in a March 4 radio interview: "I don’t want to disparage anyone because of their race, their ethnicity, their name – whatever their religion their father might have been," he said. "I’ll just say this: When you think about the optics of a Barack Obama potentially getting elected President of the United States — I mean, what does this look like to the rest of the world? What does it look like to the world of Islam?"

"I will tell you that, if he is elected president, then the radical Islamists, the al-Qaida, the radical Islamists and their supporters, will be dancing in the streets in greater numbers than they did on September 11 because they will declare victory in this War on Terror."

"Additionally, his middle name (Hussein) does matter. It matters because they read a meaning into that in the rest of the world. That has a special meaning to them. They will be dancing in the streets because of his middle name. They will be dancing in the streets because of who his father was and because of his posture that says: Pull out of the Middle East and pull out of this conflict."

This, of course, was not the first time that candidates or their surrogates descended into hateful anti-Muslim or anti- black invective (nor, sadly, will it be the last). There have been emails (some sent by Clinton aides who were later fired for their role in forwarding them) charging that Obama was a "closet Muslim," or a "Manchurian Candidate" hiding his faith to enable him to win. Others were more subtle, but no less harmful, questioning Obama’s patriotism or demeaning his candidacy by reducing him to "just a black candidate."

But King’s comments stand out as exceptional and require a more vigorous response for two reasons. On the one hand, they echo outrageous statements that have become commonplace among right-wing commentators and radio talk show hosts. It was just two weeks ago that radio personality Bill Cunningham said in a year’s time Obama would be "saddled up next to Hizbullah;" and the ever-pathetic self-styled grande dame of the right wing fringe Ann Coulter derided and taunted Obama for his middle name. But one has come to expect outrageous remarks from these characters.

King, however, is a Congressman, who also has displayed a pattern of bizarre and bigoted comments in the past. He once dismissed the shameful horrors of Abu Ghraib as mere "hazing;" he advocated treating "illegals" like "livestock;" and even once renounced efforts to give revolutionary war hero General Pulaski (a Polish citizen who fought valiantly over 230 years ago for America’s freedom) posthumous citizenship as being akin to "amnesty."

Some have called for King to apologize, and others have called for Senator McCain to repudiate his views. These should be done, but they are not enough.

King is not merely some quack with a loose and tasteless mouth, venting venom on his radio show. He is not Cunningham or Coulter. He is the Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law. His words matter because, as an elected official in a powerful position, his words reflect the policies he shapes.

If a member of a parliament outside the United States were to have made equally despicable and bigoted comments, Americans would be right to require that action be taken against that individual. King must be held accountable by his colleagues for his remarks, which send a dangerous message to the world. He should be formally censured by the Congress, so as to make it clear that remarks such as these are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.