I’m old enough to remember when Republican leaders still had souls.

Twenty years ago, I was on the White House beat for The Post when President George W. Bush, six days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, set aside his war planning efforts long enough to visit the mosque at the Islamic Center of Washington to admonish Americans not to take out their anger on innocent Muslims. I went to the mosque, on Massachusetts Avenue overlooking Rock Creek Park, and reported on the presidential visit:

“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam,” said the president, escorted by Islamic clerics into the ornate mosque full of Turkish tile, Persian rugs and Egyptian paintings. “Islam is peace.”
Quoting from the Koran’s prohibitions against evil, Bush said women who cover their heads should not fear leaving their homes. “That’s not the America I know,” he said. “That should not and that will not stand in America.”

Some conservatives objected at the time to Bush’s pro-Islam appeals, and pointed out, correctly, that he gained nothing politically from this message. But he gained much morally.

Contrast that with Republican officials’ latest actions over the holiday weekend, while the rest of the country paused to express gratitude for our many blessings. Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, a QAnon-admiring Republican, referred to Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who is Muslim, as part of a “Jihad Squad” and told an audience a false story of a worried Capitol Police officer chasing down Omar. Boebert claimed she said: “Well, she doesn’t have a backpack. We should be fine.”

Boebert at first apologized “to anyone in the Muslim community I offended” with her Muslims-are-terrorists message. Nominal House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) issued a statement that avoided criticism of Boebert’s words. And Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), whose support McCarthy needs to remain GOP leader, criticized Boebert — for apologizing. “Never apologize to Islamic terrorist sympathizers,” she wrote, repeating the “Jihad Squad” phrase.

After rejecting Omar’s request for a public apology on Monday, Boebert released a video expanding the original slander. “I will continue to fearlessly put America first, never sympathizing with terrorists,” Boebert said. “Unfortunately, Ilhan can’t say the same thing.”

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House Democrats are going through the now-routine deliberations about whether to censure Boebert, or remove her from committees. Why bother? It would give Boebert the martyrdom she desires, just as previous punishments did for Greene (who posted a threatening image of her holding an assault rifle next to Omar and other Democrats) and Rep. Paul Gosar (the Arizona Republican who posted an anime video of him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York).

Rather, Democrats ought to call the bluff of those Republicans who insist they be given the chance to police their own ranks. That’s the excuse Tom Cole (Okla.), ranking Republican on the Rules Committee, used when he opposed punishing Gosar. “The majority can and should leave the matter up to Leader McCarthy and the Republican Conference,” he said when letting Gosar off the hook. He similarly excused Greene, who before entering Congress also embraced antisemitic comments and a remark about assassinating House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Will Cole speak out against the latest bigoted, violent fantasy from a colleague? Or wait a few days for it to be eclipsed by the next outrage?

There have always been clowns like Greene, Gosar and Boebert. Over the past two decades, the Rev. Jerry Falwell referred to the prophet Mohammed as a “terrorist,” the Rev. Franklin Graham called Islam “evil,” Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson likened Muslims to Hitler, and conservative activist Paul Weyrich condemned Bush’s “constant promotion of Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance” because “it is neither.”

But Bush overruled the haters. Repeatedly during the months after the 9/11 attacks, he appealed to Americans:

“Muslim members of our armed forces and of my administration are serving their fellow Americans with distinction.”

“Millions of our fellow citizens are Muslim. We respect the faith. We honor its traditions. Our enemy does not.”

“This great nation of many religions understands our war is not against Islam. … Our war is a war against evil.”

“The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.”

There’s plenty to fault in the Bush presidency and its wars, but his defense of Muslim Americans was the essence of moral leadership. “Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger,” he said at the Washington mosque that day in 2001, “represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.” America “is a great country,” he said, “because we share the same values of respect and dignity and human worth.”

Twenty years later, Boebert, Gosar, Greene and too many of their colleagues have abandoned those shared values. And Republican leaders, divesting themselves of shame, now tolerate the worst of humankind.