Column: Heritage's ugly Benghazi panel
WASHINGTON — Representatives of prominent conservative groups converged on the Heritage Foundation on Monday afternoon for the umpteenth in a series of gatherings to draw attention to the Benghazi controversy.
But this one took an unexpected turn.
What began as a session purportedly about “unanswered questions” surrounding the September 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities in Libya deteriorated into the ugly taunting of a woman in the room who wore an Islamic head covering.
The session, as usual, quickly moved beyond the specifics of the assaults that left four Americans dead to accusations about the Muslim Brotherhood infiltrating the Obama administration, President Obama funding jihadists in their quest to destroy the United States, Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton attempting to impose Sharia blasphemy laws on Americans and Al-Jazeera America being an organ of “enemy propaganda.”
Then Saba Ahmed, an American University law student, stood in the back of the room and asked a question in a soft voice. “We portray Islam and all Muslims as bad, but there’s 1.8 billion followers of Islam,” she told them. “We have 8 million-plus Muslim Americans in this country and I don’t see them represented here.”
Panelist Brigitte Gabriel of a group called ACT! for America pounced. She said “180 million to 300 million” Muslims are “dedicated to the destruction of Western civilization.” She told Ahmed that the “peaceful majority were irrelevant” in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and she drew a Hitler comparison: “Most Germans were peaceful, yet the Nazis drove the agenda and as a result, 60 million died.”
“Are you an American?” Gabriel demanded of Ahmed, after accusing her of taking “the limelight” and before informing her that her “political correctness” belongs “in the garbage.”
“Where are the others speaking out?” Ahmed was asked. This drew an extended standing ovation from the nearly 150 people in the room, complete with cheers.
The panel’s moderator, conservative radio host Chris Plante, grinned and joined in the assault. “Can you tell me who the head of the Muslim peace movement is?” he demanded of Ahmed.
“Yeah,” audience members taunted, “yeah.”
Ahmed answered quietly, as before. “I guess it’s me right now,” she said.
Plante had kicked off the forum by lamenting a “news media that is spectacularly uncurious when it comes to even the basic bare-bones facts of what happened in Benghazi that night.” But the hour that followed showed exactly why Americans (or at least the non-Fox-News-viewing subset of Americans) are rightly skeptical: The accusers’ allegations grow wilder by the day.
Plante cast doubt on whether Ambassador Chris Stevens really died of smoke inhalation, demanding to see an autopsy report.
Gabriel floated the notion that Stevens had been working on a weapons-swap program between Libya and Syria just before he was killed.
Panelist Clare Lopez of the Citizens’ Commission on Benghazi said the perpetrators of the attack are “sipping frappes with journalists in juice bars.”
One questioner said he had heard that Gen. Carter Ham, then-commander of U.S. Africa Command, had been “placed under house arrest” at the time of the Benghazi attack. “I’ve heard the same story,” Plante seconded.
Heritage hosted Monday’s gathering in conjunction with the Benghazi Accountability Coalition, a federation coordinated by Andrew McCarthy (prosecutor of the Blind Sheik, Omar Abdel Rahman) and including 15 groups such as Heritage, Judicial Watch and the Traditional Values Coalition. McCarthy’s talk to the gathering was titled “Just the Facts” — but the facts never had a chance against all the groups’ self-promotion (“Go to BenghaziCoalition.org” and “You need to be on our mailing list”) and anti-Islamist rhetoric that too often sounded just anti-Islam.
Panelist Frank Gaffney revived allegations that former Clinton aide Huma Abedin has “deep personal” ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and said she may have advocated for laws against “Sharia blasphemy.” Gaffney also said the president’s view that “the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam” is “a statement you could have found on al-Qaeda’s website.”
But it was Gabriel, a Lebanese Christian by birth, who was most vitriolic when Ahmed asked her question. Gabriel dismissed as “irrelevant” the “2.3 million Arab Muslims living in the United States [when] it took 19 hijackers — 19 radicals — to bring America down.” She mocked Ahmed’s “point about peaceful, moderate Muslims” by making quotation marks with her fingers when she said the word peaceful.
The young woman responded calmly to the taunts of the panelists and the crowd. “As a peaceful American Muslim,” she told them, “I would like to think I’m not that irrelevant.”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.