Bret Stephens, the New York Times opinion columnist and expert on proper journalistic behavior, wrote a column to join in the condemnation of Representative Ilhan Omar for having said four words about 9/11, two of which were an indefinite pronoun and an indefinite adjective, and the other two of which were “people” and “did.” Like all the earlier arrivals on the dogpile, Stephens had to deal somehow with the fact that her quote itself was completely innocuous; unlike the others, he works in a format where he couldn’t just paste in a picture or video of a plane hitting the World Trade Center to try to make it seem worse.
So he wrote this, instead:
Spot the problem with the quoted remarks:
(1) The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 was “something some people did.”
(2) Last month’s attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, was “something someone did.”
(3) The 2015 massacre at a black church in Charleston, S.C., was “something someone did.”
There was indeed a problem with the quoted remarks, and it was easy to spot, but it was not the problem Stephens intended. The problem was that Omar never said “something some people did.” That was not her quote.
What Omar actually had said was that the Council on American-Islamic Relations had “recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”
But to have used her accurate quote there, with her words in the correct order, would have ruined the whole conceit. Even cut down to four words—”some people did something”—her quote wouldn’t have really worked with Stephens’ thought experiment. Omar mentioned the people first and the incident second because her remarks were about making the distinction between the 9/11 attackers and the rest of the world’s Muslim population. It would also have been perfectly sensible to make that same distinction between the perpetrators of the Oklahoma City bombing and the rest of the population, or between the Charleston killer and the rest of the population.
So to make Omar sound unreasonable, Stephens had to make her say something she never said. He flipped the words around, so that 9/11—the “something”—came first.
“With political power comes rhetorical responsibility,” Stephens wrote.
Only after setting up that false frame around what Omar had said did Stephens render her real remarks:
So it is that one should think about the furor—and counter-furor—over the Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar’s claim, in a speech last month in California, that the Council on American-Islamic Relations “was founded after 9/11, because they recognized that some people did something, and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”
The bulk of Omar’s speech was devoted to preaching political empowerment for American Muslims and denouncing Islamophobia. That’s fine as far as it goes.
But contrary to claims by some of her apologists, the remark is not taken out of context, it is not contradicted by anything else she says in the speech, and it is not marred merely because it is factually mistaken. (CAIR was founded seven years before 9/11.) Nor is the problem a matter of inapt phrasing: Omar is a confident public speaker with a precise command of language and a knack for turning a phrase.
So why, in a column about precision in language and responsibility in rhetoric, did Stephens have to misquote her in the first place? No sooner had he rendered it correctly than he chopped and flipped it again:
The problem is that the remark is foul, in exactly the same way that the hypothetical remarks listed above are foul. I live in lower Manhattan, near the 9/11 memorial and museum. No decent person can look at the portraits of the 2,983 victims of Islamist terrorists and say, by-the-by, that this was “something” that “some people did.”
No decent person would call someone else “foul” for remarks that they have to keep rewriting to make the other person sound bad. Bret Stephens is a phony—the kind of phony who is unashamed to try claiming ownership of 9/11 because he lives in the neighborhood long after the fact, the kind of phony who denounces shifty rhetoric in a column built on misdirection.
He wrapped it all up by quoting Omar on how it’s important to “hold those that we love, have shared values with, accountable,” offering that as concern-trolling advice to the Democratic Party. If Bret Stephens really wanted to show the power of self-accountability—he doesn’t—he’d retract the column.