By James Warren
Mike Quigley knows about cheap shots on ice. Now heâ€™s an expert on being blindsided on the Internet and cable TV.
Congressman Mike Quigley, (D-5th-IL)
Mr. Quigley, a Democratic Chicago congressman, had a relatively light Saturday recently. He played ice hockey in the morning, did a beach cleanup with the Sierra Club and hit four block parties in the 32nd, 43rd and 44th Wards. Along the way he surfaced at a conference held by the American Islamic College. It was a quick in-and-out, with remarks to perhaps 100 attendees about the strengths of American pluralism, the sort he makes to many groups. They included:
â€œForms of discrimination come in many forms, many shapes and many guises. You have my pledge to work with you to fight them, and I think that it is appropriate for me to apologize on behalf of this country for the discrimination you face.â€
He then bicycled to the first block party. The Islamic College audience was apparently grateful but didnâ€™t find his appearance especially notable as they returned to the business of their meeting.
Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, found the address nice and patriotic. â€œWhat weâ€™d expect of a congressman,â€ he said.
Neither he, Mr. Quigley nor anybody else there was prepared for the response initiated in the conservative blogosphere, then intensified on radio and TV.
The congressman was attacked harshly, with at least one death threat on a Fox News site that by weekâ€™s end was still not taken down despite requests.
Andrew Breitbart, a conservative activist, blogged that Mr. Quigley made a â€œsurprise appearanceâ€ before â€œthe primarily Muslim audience. He rambled on about the typical racism and discrimination that the liberal left is so convinced America is rampantly infected with.â€
The appearance was not a surprise, even if not on the formal program.
But the nefarious implication was repeated on blogs and the Fox News Channel. Video links included the lines above but not related comments about the legacies of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others.
Social media posts and hundreds of nasty calls, e-mails and faxes poured in to his offices, which deleted profane and violent posts and passed direct threats to law enforcement.
But the conservative echo chamber was in high dudgeon. Bill Oâ€™Reilly, the Fox News host, decided that Mr. Quigleyâ€™s remarks were a story and thus conferred high-profile legitimacy to the bloggersâ€™ vituperation on Tuesday. Mr. Quigley could not appear, but Mr. Rehab did, initially nonplused that the remarks were deemed newsworthy.
With â€œQuestionable Apologyâ€ emblazoned on the screen, Mr. Oâ€™Reilly repeated the same two sentences Mr. Quigley had uttered and declared:
â€œWow! What discrimination?â€ Statistics donâ€™t support claims of bias against Muslim Americans, he said.
Much data and polling contradicts him. As an unabashed Mr. Rehab told him, â€œYouâ€™d have to be living under a rockâ€ to miss the overarching reality.
Mr. Rehab cited federal figures on rising workplace complaints of anti-Muslim discrimination and polls showing both that 39 percent of Americans would require Muslims to carry special identification and that one-third donâ€™t think Muslims should be allowed to run for president.
â€œO.K., those stats bolster your argument,â€ Mr. Oâ€™Reilly conceded. â€œBut in economic realms, Muslim Americans are doing well, pretty well,â€ he said. â€œWe donâ€™t want anybody to be anti-Muslim. Thank you for coming on here,â€ Mr. Oâ€™Reilly concluded brusquely, with Mr. Rehab having clearly failed to fulfill a role of self-righteous liberal piÃ±ata.
But Fox wasnâ€™t done.
On Wednesday, its morning â€œFox and Friendsâ€ show saw Mr. Quigley, 52, called a â€œsilly old foolâ€ by Ralph Peters, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and advocate of aggressive military actions. He belittled Muslims with a series of mock apologies like â€œWe should apologize for preventing them from beating their daughters to death for flirting.â€
Eboo Patel, an Indian-born Muslim and former Rhodes Scholar who runs the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Corps, found the response offensive.
But he noted a Gallup poll finding that American Muslims remain very optimistic despite facing discrimination.
He mentioned that his nephew in Houston was hassled when, for religious reasons, he wouldnâ€™t eat school pizza with pork.
Well, at least we occasionally try to curb school bullies. We clearly donâ€™t when it comes to the bullies who can drive our public dialogue.
James Warren writes a column for the Chicago News Cooperative.