Hateful words demand stronger response from Congress, President Trump

Hateful words demand stronger response from Congress, President Trump
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People often ask me whether I faced anti-Semitism when I ran for vice president with Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold Gore'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate The Hill's Morning Report - In Nevada, bets on Sanders, eyes on Bloomberg Mellman: Primary elections aren't general elections MORE in 2000.

I did not.

In fact, the response I received throughout America was so accepting and warm it might be described as “pro-Semitic.”


Not only had anti-Semitism receded in America in the years before 2000, but our prevailing national ethic at that time was so hostile to bigotry of all kinds that the remaining anti-Semites laid low. In the years that followed, our society became more and more open. America elected our first African-American president, and legal rights and social acceptance were extended to other groups that had suffered discrimination, such as the LGBT community.

In recent years, however, the prevailing ethic in America seems to have begun to slip back in the wrong direction. The bigots are out again, including some from high places, and even though it is clear that they remain a small minority of the American people, they get too much attention from the media.

The new social media particularly have enabled societal decency, civility and morality to be defined down on the networks they provide.

When public figures use words that go with this downward flow, they accelerate the division and decline in our society. Whether they understand it or not, leaders are role models. Their speech sets standards — recently lower standards — for the rest of our people.

During the last few months, in words that I could not have imagined being spoken by leaders in 2000, two members of Congress have made bigoted, divisive and deeply hurtful statements: Rep. Steve KingSteven (Steve) Arnold KingMother of child in viral meme sends Steve King cease-and-desist for using image in fundraising Nebraska Democratic Party Chair: Rural vote should be 'bedrock' of party With surge in anti-Semitism, political leaders need to be aggressive and reflective in response MORE (R-Iowa) on white nationalism and white supremacy, and Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarSanders wins endorsement of top Muslim group Omar endorses progressive Georgia Democrat running for House seat Tlaib says she held Omar's hand during 'triggering' moments at Trump's State of the Union speech MORE (D-Minn.) on Jews and Israel.

Their statements presented the House of Representatives, whose honor they besmirched, with an opportunity to rebuke them with the same directness the two members used in their words of hate. On both occasions, the House failed the test of leadership and morality, condemning racism and anti-Semitism in general terms, but failing to criticize King and Omar directly and by name for what they have said. In King’s case, the House Republican caucus did take the strong step of removing him from his committees. However, both resolutions read more like political balancing acts than clarion moral calls, and both are unlikely to deter the next elected official who thinks about making a public statement vilifying another group of Americans.

It is only 74 years since World War II and the Holocaust ended. One of the most painful lessons those events teach us today is that hateful statements that are inadequately answered can metastasize into horrific acts.

That is why each of us — citizens and leaders — has an obligation to speak truth to bigoted lies, to push them back, and to uphold the ideals of freedom and equality that our founders declared were the endowment we all receive from our Creator.

Those two weak House resolutions don’t have to be the last words on this critical matter. We need more — perhaps a new resolution that explicitly censures King and Omar. The two members themselves could help a lot by reaching out to the groups they offended and trying to heal the wounds they have inflicted.


President TrumpDonald John TrumpChasten Buttigieg: 'I've been dealing with the likes of Rush Limbaugh my entire life' Lawmakers paint different pictures of Trump's 'opportunity zone' program We must not turn our heads from the effects of traumatic brain injuries MORE’s words have the greatest effect on our country because he is our foremost leader. He has a special responsibility to choose the words he uses so that they do not divide our country or inflame public opinion.

Together, the president and members of both parties in Congress have to find ways to raise their standards of communication, which would help unify our country so that they and we can work together to solve our nation’s problems and seize the great opportunities we have for a better future.

Joe Lieberman, a former U.S. senator from Connecticut, is national co-chairman of No Labels, an organization working to create a new center in American politics that puts country before party.