When Clay Higgins was a sheriff’s department spokesman in rural Louisiana, his rare candor precipitated his downfall, but not before it catapulted him to online fame and, more recently, a seat in the U.S. House.
Like another Republican politician who rode a populist wave to Washington this year — also with a penchant for making controversial statements off the cuff — the newly elected congressman finds himself under fire for making controversial statements about Islam.
“Not a single radicalized Islamic suspect should be granted any measure of quarter,” the Louisiana Republican posted on Facebook on Sunday. “Their intended entry to the American homeland should be summarily denied. Every conceivable measure should be engaged to hunt them down. Hunt them, identify them, and kill them. Kill them all. For the sake of all that is good and righteous. Kill them all.”
Higgins’s statement — which has been shared more than 2,500 times and spawned 1,400 comments — was released hours after three men using knives and a vehicle killed seven people during a bloody rampage in central London.
Saturday night’s attack wounded dozens, including four police officers. Eighteen people remain in critical condition.
On Facebook, some users responded to his message with dismay.
“Wow, you are no better than a terrorist,” Misty Johnson wrote. “I’m more afraid of people like you than a refugee who was vetted for 2 years by 7 Intel agencies. I think we need better vetting for our representatives. You are an unhinged lunatic and playing right into what ISIS wants.”
“This is extremely hateful,” Tyler F. Thigpen wrote. “I didn’t vote for you, but you represent me and I’d like to hear a lot less hateful speech from the politicians that serve me.”
Reached by phone, Higgins told The Washington Post that he was surprised that his message was interpreted by some as hateful or an indictment against Islam — in fact, he said, he didn’t view the post as controversial at all.
He said he was calling for the death of Islamic terrorists, not peaceful Muslims. When he used the word “Christendom,” he said, he was referencing the Western world, not calling for a war between Christianity and Islam. Working in law enforcement, Higgins said, he interacted with people from different faiths and backgrounds and has always respected people based on “what was in their heart.”
“I can tell you that there weren’t many Muslims in that part of Louisiana, but those that I have met have been very cool and very loving,” Higgins said. “Many Muslims are American citizens and I’d give my last life’s blood for any one of them, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to speak out boldly and from my heart about the threat we face as a nation and as a world.”
Higgins said he decided to speak out on Facebook after seeing news coverage of the London incidents, which occurred several weeks after a suicide bomber’s attack that killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. Higgins said he was deeply affected by both attacks and believes some Americans fail to realize our society is at war with an enemy who must be killed to be defeated.
“I think I’m well-documented as being a compassionate, loving human being,” he said. “But I got no love for people who blow up children at a concert. What kind of a man would strap a bomb to his chest and blow up children?”
“I’m passionate about it because I love my fellow man,” Higgins said. “I would remove those that would destroy the innocents amongst my fellow man.”
Ibrahim Hooper, the national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), told The Post that Higgins’s comments follow a familiar pattern of public officials walking back broad generalizations about Islam in the wake of tragic incidents.
“Unfortunately, we see this each time after one of these tragic incidents,” said Hooper, referring to the attack in London. “When there’s no push back against Islamophobic rhetoric, people see that as tacit endorsement of anti-Islamic rhetoric.”
“In particular, an elected official at the national level should not be making emotional statements, but should respond to tragedy with well-thought out statements that don’t make the situation worse,” he added.
Higgins’s willingness to speak his mind brought him notoriety in the historic heart of Cajun country, where Higgins was a spokesman for the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office in Opelousas from December 2014 until he resigned in March 2016.
A muscled Army veteran and hardened street cop who rarely cracked a smile, Higgins had an intimidating on-camera appearance on weekly “Crime Stoppers” segments that garnered a cult following. His stern demeanor, back-country drawl and made-for-TV one-liners explain why, in towns across southern Louisiana, he became known as the “Cajun John Wayne.”
Higgins had a habit of looking into the camera and speaking directly to suspects, such as Ladarious Young, a fugitive whom Higgins instructed to turn himself in to “start to make things right” in a 2015 video.
“You can’t run from your own guilt, son,” Higgins said into the camera while discussing Young, a local fugitive who was accused of assaulting a woman with a beer bottle. Young was also linked to a casino heist. “You can’t hide from what you’ve done, and you’ll never escape … the long arm of the law,” Higgins added on KATC, the ABC affiliate that delivers Crime Stoppers to eight parishes (counties) across southern Louisiana.
Higgins resigned after he appeared in a viral video calling a group of predominantly black gang members “thugs,” “heathens” and “animals.”
“We have felony warrants for your arrest,” Higgins said directly into the camera in the video, holding a semiautomatic assault rifle. “You will be hunted. You will be trapped. And if you raise your weapon to a man like me, we’ll return fire with superior fire.”
Higgins’s tough talk led to criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and Higgin’s own boss — St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby J. Guidroz — who called on his spokesman to “tone down” his unprofessional comments.
Higgins said he couldn’t follow Guidroz’s orders and resigned instead.
“We live in a system of laws, and there are legal rights that apply to everyone,” the ACLU said in a statement sent to KATC. “It is the job of law enforcement to protect those rights while also keeping our communities safe. Nothing that Mr. Higgins said will make his community safer, but there is much to suggest violations of fundamental rights of all. … In doing so he must honor the laws of this country, or he is unfit to serve.”
After he resigned from law enforcement, the Lafayette, La., Advertiser reported that a Republican campaign staff member recognized Higgins’s political potential and recruited the outspoken Louisiana native to run for office in the state’s 3rd Congressional District. After finishing second in the primary, defeating former Louisiana lieutenant governor Scott Angelle, he arrived in Congress the victor of a hard-fought runoff election in which he captured 56.1 percent of the vote, the paper reported.
He replaced six-term Rep. Charles W. Boustany Jr. (R), who unsuccessfully ran for a Senate seat.
“Higgins presented himself as a blunt-speaking everyman,” the Acadiana Advocate reported after his December election. “He benefited from the surge of angry voters energized by Donald Trump to go the polls in November. The question going into Saturday night was whether those occasional voters who cast ballots for Trump would return for Higgins or whether the supporters who have backed Angelle over the years could outnumber the angry voters backing Higgins.”
In recent months, Higgins has become a vocal supporter of President Trump’s travel ban.
In January, he delivered a speech on the House floor in support of the ban, according to ABC affiliate KATC. The statement cited his experience in law enforcement and blamed the “liberal media” for “irresponsible rhetoric” surrounding the ban.
“President Trump’s order is not a betrayal of American values,” he said at the time. “His actions inspire hope to the millions of Americans who have watched our nation decline over the past decade, watched helplessly as Radical Islamic horror has gripped the world and … unbelievably … been allowed into our own nation with wanton disregard.”
Last month, the congressman posted a video on Facebook that showed him wearing a SWAT vest, firing a rifle and calling for constituents to vote Republican to send a strong message to socialists.
“Tell the world, we’re Americans,” he bellowed. “We’d rather die on our feet than live on our knees.”