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House GOP leaders face calls to confront Islamophobia

By Felicia Sonmez and Marianna Sotomayor
House GOP leaders face calls to confront Islamophobia
Rep. Andre Carson, D-Ind., and other representatives stand by Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

WASHINGTON - House Republican leaders are facing calls to condemn Islamophobic remarks by members of their conference, amid mounting concern that their silence is enabling extremist rhetoric that contributes to bigotry and potential threats of violence toward Muslims.

At a Capitol news conference Tuesday, all three Muslim lawmakers currently serving in the House - Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar, Minn., Rashida Tlaib, Mich., and André Carson, Ind. - urged Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to make clear that such attacks will not be tolerated within his party's ranks.

"We cannot pretend that this hate speech from leading politicians doesn't have real consequences," said Omar, who recently introduced a bill to monitor and combat Islamophobia globally.

She played a threatening voice mail that she said she received the previous day, after Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., accused her of "anti-American and anti-Semitic" rhetoric in a video posted on social media.

"I myself have reported hundreds of threats on my life, often triggered by Republican attacks on my faith," Omar said. "And this week, once again, we saw another increase."

The embrace of Islamophobic rhetoric on the right is not new. In 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," and after winning the White House, Trump quickly acted on that promise by instituting a ban targeting foreign nationals from several Muslim-majority countries.

But even after Trump's departure from the White House, the use of anti-Muslim language among some Republican lawmakers has grown, with recent statements by Boebert and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., among the latest examples.

Both lawmakers have referred to Omar as a member of the "Jihad Squad." Boebert has repeatedly told a story in which she likened Omar to a suicide bomber, while Greene on Tuesday described the Minnesota Democrat as "bloodthirsty," "pro-al Qaeda" and "basically an apologist for Islamic terrorists."

Robert McCaw, director of government affairs for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, denounced the attacks on Omar and said that rooting out Islamophobia within their party's ranks should be an "urgent priority" for Republican leaders.

"The rhetoric in these anti-Muslim sneers being targeted at Congresswoman Omar is not new, and we have heard it for the past several years, since the election of the first Muslim member of Congress, Keith Ellison," McCaw said. "House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy needs to publicly, once and for all, make it clear that the GOP does not welcome anti-Muslim rhetoric, especially before the 2022 midterm elections. Anti-Muslim hatred cannot be a Republican Party talking point."

The civil rights group Muslim Advocates and the liberal Jewish group Bend the Arc: Jewish Action on Tuesday urged the House Ethics Committee to investigate Boebert over her "virulent, anti-Muslim" remarks, which they said had created a "dangerous environment," particularly in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.

Republicans have long been critical of Omar for her criticisms of Israel, and members of both parties have denounced some of her statements as antisemitic. In 2019, House Democratic leaders swiftly condemned Omar's suggestion that Israel's allies in American politics were motivated by money rather than principle; Omar apologized later that day.

But the attacks on Omar have intensified in recent years, going far beyond criticism of her policy positions and often suggesting that she is a threat because she is Muslim, while also distorting her words and baselessly claiming that she supports terrorists.

At an event in her Colorado district last week, Boebert told supporters that an encounter with Omar was "not my first 'Jihad Squad' moment." Boebert also shared a story in which she once rode a Capitol elevator with Omar and remarked to a Capitol Police officer: "Well, she doesn't have a backpack. We should be fine."

Omar said the story was "made up" and called for Boebert to be disciplined by House leaders.

Boebert sent a tweet Friday in which she apologized "to anyone in the Muslim community I offended with my comment about Rep. Omar." But in a phone call with Omar on Monday, Boebert refused to publicly apologize and instead accused the Minnesota Democrat of "anti-American and anti-Semitic" rhetoric, prompting Omar to end the call.

Boebert told a similar story at an event in September, according to a video reported by CNN on Tuesday.

McCarthy has not publicly commented on Boebert's recent Islamophobic remarks about Omar. In response to questions Tuesday about Republican leaders' silence on the matter, McCarthy's spokesman, Matt Sparks, said that Boebert had apologized.

Spokesmen for House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., Republican Conference Chair Rep. Elise Stefanik, N.Y., and Republican Study Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Banks, Ind., did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Greene, meanwhile, has already been removed from her House committee assignments over her embrace of extremist beliefs. But that move was led by House Democrats, after McCarthy and other top Republicans refused to do so.

During an appearance Tuesday on former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon's "War Room" podcast, Greene defended Boebert and said she did not owe Omar an apology.

Greene went on to make further Islamophobic attacks against Omar.

"She hates Israel," Greene said of the Minnesota Democrat. "She's pro-Hamas. She's pro-al-Qaeda. She's basically an apologist for Islamic terrorists. There is no need to apologize to that woman because she will never stop. She's bloodthirsty. She wants Republicans completely taken out. She wants Republicans jailed. She does not care about our country. She's anti-American."

She added: "It's never enough for Ilhan Omar. It's never enough for the Jihad Squad. Nothing is good enough for them. No one could bow deep enough for them to be satisfied because they want all of us gone."

As a House candidate in 2020, Greene posted on Facebook an image of herself holding a rifle with photos of Omar and two other liberal congresswomen of color and vowed to "go on the offense" against members of the "Squad."

Some Republicans outside of Congress have defended Boebert, as well.

"I think that Congresswoman Boebert probably expressed the sentiment of many Americans," Pueblo County Republican Chairman Robert Leverington told Colorado Springs-based radio station KRDO. "This Congresswoman Omar has been poking her finger in the eyes of many Americans over the last couple of years, and we're sick of it."

Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., condemned Boebert's anti-Muslim remarks and soon faced a barrage of criticism on social media from Greene, who called her "trash" and accused her of being a "RINO," or "Republican in name only."

After a day of tweets sent back and forth, Mace told reporters at the Capitol Tuesday night: "All I can say about Marjorie Taylor Greene is bless her . . . heart."

During a news conference focused on recruiting women to run for the House, Stefanik was asked about how to bridge the divides that have been exposed among members as leaders eye the midterm election, including the back-and-forth between Mace and Greene.

"Listen, we're working as a team. . . . The issues people care about are not the Twitter infighting," she said. "They care about issues that impact their daily lives, and that's what Republicans are focused on."

It remains unclear whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., will seek to take action to censure Boebert or further punish Greene.

At their weekly meeting Tuesday night, House Democratic leaders discussed a possible resolution condemning Islamophobia but didn't make any decisions, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private gathering.

In an exchange with reporters earlier Tuesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said there was yet to be a "significant" discussion on whether to punish Boebert but that there is a possibility, given the congresswoman's ongoing "toxic" rhetoric.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., on Tuesday afternoon suggested that McCarthy himself should step down over his handling of the issue.

"The GOP is a serial-offending, malicious anti-Muslim party," Swalwell said in a tweet. "@GOPLeader McCarthy's silence is a permission slip for his members to keep assaulting the Muslim community. His green-lighting this will lead to violence. He must resign."

Trump weighed in, as well, issuing a statement in which he falsely accused Omar of "wishing death to Israel" and of "essentially abandoning her former country, which doesn't even have a government - Exactly what she'd like to see for the United States!"

The heightened Islamophobic rhetoric comes at a time when many Republicans are also speaking out against Afghan refugees coming to the United States after President Joe Biden ended the country's military presence there.

A Quinnipiac poll in September found 60% of Americans supportive of accepting Afghan refugees into the United States and 32% opposed.

Nearly two-thirds of Republicans - 62% - said they were opposed to accepting Afghan refugees into the United States, while 30% were in support. That compared with 87% of Democrats and 62% of independents who supported accepting Afghan refugees.

Overall support for accepting refugees increased to 83% if the potential refugee was an Afghan national who assisted the United States during the war. Seventy-one percent of Republicans supported accepting Afghan refugees if they assisted the United States, along with 84% 0f independents and 91% of Democrats.

At Tuesday's news conference, Tlaib, Omar and Carson were also joined by Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., who said that he wanted to show solidarity with the trio as a non-Muslim.

Carson told reporters that House GOP leaders must recognize that "words have consequences and can incite violence."

"This is also about ensuring the safety of the Muslim community," he said. "Hateful words against Muslims from elected officials and public figures embolden many to engage in acts of violence that hurt our community. We cannot let this happen."

Taliban wages campaign of targeted killings against former members of Afghan security forces

By Susannah George
Taliban wages campaign of targeted killings against former members of Afghan security forces
The father of the former police officer outside his home's front gate in Helmand, where a group of men he said were Taliban fighters abducted and killed his son. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Susannah George

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan - It was dark and the streets deserted one night in late August when the former intelligence officer heard banging on his neighbor's gates. Then, women screaming.

"Please don't kill them," they pleaded, "have mercy." The former officer crawled to his roof to see three attackers pulling two men out into the street below him. The gunmen wore Taliban insignia and drove a confiscated green pickup truck, previously issued to Afghan police and now used exclusively by the Taliban.

The two men had served as border police under the previous Afghan government, according to the former officer. "You killed many of our Mujahedeen," he heard one of the attackers say as the group raised their guns and shot both men multiple times in the face and chest.

The bodies were left on the side of the street. The next morning, after the family buried their sons, they fled and changed their phone numbers. "No one knows where they are," said the former officer, who, like others in this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals from the Taliban.

Scenes like this became a near-nightly occurrence in southern Afghanistan after the Taliban took control of the country in August, according to more than a dozen family members of victims and former Afghan officials, as fighters carried out a broad campaign of targeted killings against their former foes.

The stories in Helmand, Kandahar and elsewhere were echoed in a Human Rights Watch report released Tuesday that documented more than 100 killings and abductions of former Afghan officials since August. The New York-based research group described the violations as on the rise and deliberate.

The killings come despite a pledge to grant amnesty to former Afghan security forces and government officials, demonstrating that building international pressure for the group to respect human rights has done little to sway the Taliban from the use of indiscriminate violence to respond to groups and individuals perceived as threats.

Taliban spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment about the killings.

The former officer who witnessed the late-night raid on his street also lost three family members to targeted killings since the Taliban takeover. His brother, uncle and cousin, former police and intelligence officers, were picked up by Taliban fighters from the central bazaar, according to witnesses who informed the family. Days later, a picture posted to Facebook showed the men dumped at a prominent roundabout beneath a statue of a dove.

When the family retrieved the bodies, "they all still had the amnesty letters in their pockets," the former officer said. That day, he considered fleeing but couldn't. As the oldest remaining son, he has to provide for his elderly parents who are too frail to travel.

"Of course I'm afraid the knock at the door will also come for me one night," he said.

Patricia Gossman, an associate director and co-author of the Human Rights Watch report, said the violence was unlikely to be carried out by rogue Taliban fighters.

"The Taliban have always prided themselves on command and control of their ranks, so it would be pretty hard to believe that killings on this scale could go on without senior officials in Kabul even being aware," Gossman said.

If senior Taliban officials are aware of the killings but doing nothing to stop it, she said, "in every respect they are condoning" the actions of their fighters.

- - -

Many former Afghan soldiers were allowed to return to their homes after handing over their weapons and applying for amnesty. A former police officer in Kunduz was allowed to walk home along with dozens of Afghan army soldiers from the military base beside the city's airport after a surrender deal was struck.

"Sometimes the Taliban comes to my house to check again for weapons or government cars," the officer said. While not always friendly, the fighters have never beaten him or threatened him with violence.

"It's just harassment," he said. But the visits leave him unnerved, wondering how long the promise of amnesty will last.

For one 20-year-old police officer in Helmand, amnesty lasted about a month. After registering with his local Taliban commander, he returned to his family's farm, never appearing worried that he would be a target despite rumors of Taliban night raids in the provincial capital and neighboring villages.

"He trusted that piece of paper," said the former police officer's father, a retired truck driver. "But I was scared for him every day."

The knock came at the door in mid-September about 10 p.m. The former police officer walked into the garden to answer and was whisked away so quickly that his father didn't have time to confront the abductors. Minutes later, the sound of gunfire rippled through the house.

"At that moment, I already knew they had killed my son," the father said. "We didn't sleep at all that night. At sunrise I walked out to the mosque for prayers, and that's when I saw the crowd gathered in a nearby field."

The young man had been shot three times, once in the forehead and once through each eye.

"No one except the Taliban could do something like this," the father said, referring to the group's strong control of the area. The father said the only reason he hasn't fled with his family is because he cannot afford to. His son's income was the only money supporting the family.

"Where would we even go?" the father said, shaking his head. "What this shows me is the Taliban did not bring the system they promised. They are not going to build this country. . . . Things will only go from worse to worse."

While the Taliban used summary executions and arbitrary detention for years to maintain order in areas under its control, the number of incidents is up and the group is employing the tactics more widely, according to the Human Rights Watch report.

"This is much worse than what we saw previously," Gossman said, explaining that she thinks the increase in killings and arrests is a combination of revenge-seeking in the aftermath of war, Taliban intolerance of any dissent or criticism, and the group's control of more territory, leaving those under threat fewer places to hide.

As the Taliban pushed into Ghazni, one of the provincial capital's senior police officers was imprisoned, along with scores of other police, despite being granted amnesty, according to his nephew. A stream of elders and family members pleaded with Taliban officials to release the men. It didn't happen.

"After 49 days, my uncle was tortured to death," said his nephew, adding that he saw the corpse of his uncle. The Washington Post is withholding his name for security reasons. "He was brutally killed."

The Taliban initially refused to hand over the man's body to his family and did so only after tribal elders intervened, the nephew said. He added that Taliban leaders told the tribal elders he was killed because he was accused of arresting and torturing Taliban fighters.

From the small room where he is hiding, an Afghan local police member said he had a list of 60 names of former colleagues killed by Taliban fighters in Ghazni alone after the province was overrun. Others were arrested and many remain missing.

"There is no way to investigate the killings and arrests of the former government police," he said. "The Taliban is not allowing media to report such news. The Taliban has not been formally admitting such incidents."

- - -

For many, the prospect of registering for amnesty was too risky. One elite intelligence officer who worked closely with foreign forces moved between the homes of friends and family for weeks after the Taliban takeover. Then he took a chance, traveling to Mazar-e Sharif in the hopes of getting on an evacuation flight, his younger sibling said.

But when the planes were delayed, he called his brother and said he was told to find a hotel room in town where he could wait. Three days later he was dead, thrown from the window of his high-rise hotel room, according to the hotel's security guards who relayed what they saw to the brother. When the family collected his body, the brother said, it also bore marks of torture: extensive beatings and multiple knife wounds.

"For my brother, there was never any such thing as amnesty," he said. "Everyone knew he worked with the Americans" and had a pending special immigrant visa application.

"They didn't help my brother," he said, referring to the United States. "They betrayed him."

Members of Afghanistan's special forces and many prominent commanders fear they are at greater risk of revenge killings because they were more likely to have killed, imprisoned or interrogated Taliban members than the Afghan military's rank-and-file.

The Taliban also has more information now about such elite units and others who worked for the Afghan government from extensive employment records left behind at key ministries.

A senior employee of Afghanistan's main intelligence agency said he tried to destroy employment records at his headquarters, but he estimates that most of the information made its way into Taliban hands.

"There was everything: names, addresses, phone numbers," said the employee, who is now in hiding outside Kabul. "I feel guilty about this the most."

Over the months since the fall, the intelligence employee has kept in touch with a few dozen former colleagues on a WhatsApp channel. The men use the group to share unverified reports of targeted killings and arrests. During the first few weeks of Taliban rule, about 20 reports of killings of former security forces filtered through the group each week.

"Most were in the south and the east," the employee said. "That is where the Taliban has its strongest source networks and where the Afghan intelligence was most active in the public, most exposed."

One of the intelligence officers killed in Kandahar, a 30-year-old man, was sitting inside his family's shop when three motorbikes pulled up carrying six fighters. Two men entered the store, identified themselves as Taliban fighters and asked the former officer to come with them.

"They were very polite. They just said we need to talk to you, and he went willingly," said the intelligence officer's brother, who was in the shop at the time. The fighters walked the man around the corner and shot him four times in the head and chest.

"After that incident, we knew the Taliban are just manipulating us with the amnesty agreement," the brother said. "And now we see the number of killings rising each day in Kandahar."

Southern Afghanistan, the Taliban's traditional heartland, has also been the scene of some of the most brutal phases of the past two decades of war. A cousin of the officer shot outside his family's shop said he thinks many of the killings in Kandahar are attempts to settle old scores.

"But it's not all revenge. The Taliban also wants to eliminate anyone who will be a headache for them in the future," he said, referring to the potential for resistance movements to rise up against the militant rule. But he also fears the killings could backfire.

"It could turn into another cycle," he said, "just like the last 40 years of war."

- - -

The Washington Post's Sudarsan Raghavan in Ghazni, Afghanistan; Ezzatullah Mehrdad in Islamabad, Pakistan; Aziz Tassal in Houston; and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

Good luck trying to bag a Santa this year

By Maura Judkis
Good luck trying to bag a Santa this year
Tim Connaghan, who goes by

A few weeks ago, Courtney Bryant's boss approached her with a task. It was really important, he said, and would probably take some time. He was "making it seem like it was just going to be this really big thing," she says. "He said, 'I need you to find a Santa.' I literally just cackled. I thought he was joking."

Her boss is on the board of a Fort Worth nonprofit organization that is holding an event Dec. 4, a prime weekend for holiday parties. He wanted a performer who could play Santa for the kids in attendance. How hard could it be? She started reaching out to the many Santa talent agencies who handle such requests. And they all came back to her with the same answer: No-No-No.

In total, she estimates she reached out to about 50 different Santas and companies, all of whom turned her down. Things got so dire, "I was thinking of asking my husband because he has a big full beard and kind of, like, longish hair." Finally, through a website called GigSalad, one company answered her call. Bryant signed a contract for $320 for two hours of a fake-bearded Santa - "If we wanted one with a real beard, it would have been, like, a hundred dollars more." She has no idea what she's going to get.

"I don't even have a picture of the Santa. I don't know what he looks like," she says. "The woman I spoke to on the phone for the company said that the Santa will reach out 48 hours before the event." This was not reassuring.

The best-case scenario is that the kids love him. The worst-case scenario, says Bryant, is the plot of "That movie 'Bad Santa' " - you know, the one starring Billy Bob Thornton as a sex-addicted alcoholic mall Santa who moonlights as a professional thief.

The nationwide worker shortage has stricken an array of industries, as varied as fast food, textile mills and long-haul trucking. The crisis, as news outlets have been chronicling with increasing worry, extends all the way up to the North Pole: While major shopping malls have mostly secured their Santas (they sign them to contracts months in advance), there are not enough Santas to meet the demand of this year's back-to-normal holiday parties and festivals, performers say. Low pay is not the issue - the median rate for a Santa-for-hire is $30 an hour, with many experienced Santas commanding $150 an hour or more.

"Across the board I've seen an uptick in number of requests, but once I'm full, I'm full," says Doug Eberhardt, a Santa based in Charlotte. "I've got 92 gigs booked between now and Christmas."

HireSanta, an agency for Santas and Mrs. Clauses, has been turning down requests for weeks.

"Hundreds of people a day have been reaching out to us," founder Mitch Allen says. "We always sell out on weekends, but normally it's after Thanksgiving." This year, his Santas were all fully committed for every weekend by the first week of November.

- - -

With his magical workshop and vast contingent of workers, Santa is usually a guy who understands supply and demand. But maybe that applies only to toys: There are more parties this year, and there are also fewer Santas available. The pandemic hit the Santa Claus community hard, for obvious reasons: Many of the men who play the role are at high risk in the coronavirus pandemic because of their age. The Santa physique (see: "bowl full of jelly") tends to check off a not-so-nice list of potential co-morbidities, starting with a high BMI.

"Several hundred Santas and Mrs. Clauses, over the last 18 months, have passed away, and it's just a tragedy," says Allen, though he cautions that not all of those deaths may have been attributable to covid-19. Other Santas, wary of the risks of being around germy, potentially unvaccinated children, have decided to sit yet another pandemic holiday out, or retire.

Santa Tim Connaghan, who goes by the honorific "National Santa" for his role in major parades and as the Santa for Toys for Tots, surveys his brethren annually and reports that 18% of the surviving Santas are taking the year off. He is taking fewer bookings this year to spend more time with family.

"I've had all my shots and all my vaccinations, and I watch myself very closely," says Connaghan. "But I want to remain cautious, you know, and I'm also encouraging other Santas to do the same."

Mezzanine Beecomb is the founder of Circus Modern, a San Francisco talent brokerage for stilt walkers, contortionists and other party performers - including Santas. Every holiday season, she assembles a troupe of about five Santas who take bookings to visit private homes. But she lost a few of her regulars to moves and illness, and started looking for replacements after Halloween. She quickly realized that she was behind schedule. She posted some job ads online. It didn't go well.

"The folks who responded were on the younger side, like really young to be Santa," she says. One site, ZipRecruiter, offered up candidates who were female. Others were not willing to work on Christmas Eve. A few applicants were construction workers with no experience acting or working with children. From her initial applicants, she has hired only one man, who is probably a bit too young for the job - she'll fix that with stage makeup - but previously worked at a school.

Instead of hunting around fruitlessly, it seems like the easiest thing would be to recruit your grandpa or uncle - or, really, any man with a beard and a twinkle in his eye, right? But that has its challenges, too. Santa is nothing without his red fur-trimmed suit, but good luck finding one of those this late in the game. Blame the broken supply chain.

"There's a lot of needed items that are still on the sea in containers," a spokeswoman for the company Costumes for Santa told The Washington Post. "Our wholesalers have not gotten their product from China. ... Stuff that should have come in in August is coming in now."

Meanwhile, determined would-be Santas are buying suits and accessories in record numbers, perhaps so they can DIY a little magic. At Party City, "We're already seeing a significant increase in Santa suits, hats and accessory purchases compared to last year," as well as an increase over pre-pandemic Christmas 2019, says Julie Roehm, the company's chief marketing and experience officer. Eberhardt, the Charlotte Santa, also owns Pro Santa Shop, and has sold out of most items.

"I sold four or five of my own personal (suits) at a premium just because people were just that desperate," he says.

But a fancy suit might not be enough. An untested Santa, one who happens to look and sound suspiciously like Uncle Andy, could ruin a kid's Christmas and shatter their sense of trust if he's not skilled in the art of improvisation.

"A lot of them just think throwing on the beard and the Party City Santa suit, kids will believe them - and some kids will," says Eberhardt. "But for the most part, that's not very believable."

- - -

Perhaps the shortage is an opportunity to rethink what makes a Santa "believable." For most of the past century, that has meant a St. Nick who is chubby, white-bearded, old and usually Caucasian. Maybe a gap in the marketplace will open up opportunities for Santas who don't fit the mainstream mold: Black Santas. Deaf Santas. Spanish-speaking Santas. Connaghan is trying to develop a talent pipeline through an initiative called Santa Bootcamp, sponsored by Old Navy, which recruits Santas with diverse backgrounds. Because there are so few of these Santas - only 5% of Santas identify as non-White by industry estimates - they are even harder to find this year, says HireSanta's Allen.

The shortage also means that Santa gigs are available to those who are less immunocompromised because of their age. Like Hunter Woodson, who has a full calendar of Santa gigs, despite being a clean-shaven, baby-faced 21-year-old. His costume, he says in his charming drawl, is so good that when people see him out of the suit and beard, "They go, 'Ain't no way, that can't be him, he's just a kid.' ... They just can't believe it. They're blown away."

He plays it up by walking with his shoulders stooped, but he can also do stunts that other Santas wouldn't be capable of. Woodson founded the Blue Ridge Christmas Cottage, an attraction in Lovingston, Va., and he drops down a chimney during appearances.

"It's a tight squeeze, but it works," he says.

Or, there are Santas who take the look in a different direction entirely. Rosario Smirne, 42, of Alexandria, Va., was moved by the holiday spirit to get into the Santa game for the first time last week, with plans to donate his earnings to charities. He has short black hair, only a few flecks of silver in his dark beard, and looks younger than his age. So he's branded himself as "Santa Maverick" - a sort of dashing, "Bridgerton"-meets-Macy's Santa in a fur-trimmed cape and gold paisley vest with tie.

"Santa with swag," he says. If kids ask why he doesn't look like the Santa they've seen on TV, he has a ready answer: Basically, this is his casual Friday.

"As it gets closer to Christmas, my beard gets longer, it gets whiter, and I gain a little weight, and I get ready to go out on Christmas Eve," he explains, as if he were talking to a skeptical child. "That's when I transition to the red-and-white suit. This is my current state right now."

Does it work? He'll find out soon enough. But are people eager for his services anyway?

"I've had 27 offers in 12 hours," he says.

Maybe a Santa alternative doesn't try to be Santa at all. Maybe, like the plot of the 1974 stop-motion classic "The Year Without a Santa Claus," Mrs. Claus will come to the rescue. Connaghan has deployed Santa's wife in areas where no Santa can be found.

"She could come by and say, 'Well, Santa is so busy and everything, so he asked me to come by and see you, and I'm going to find out from all of you what you want for Christmas and take it back to him,' " he says.

But, she, too, is in short supply. Justin Raprager has been searching for a Mrs. Claus for weeks to staff his Odessa, Fla., family farm's winter festival. Of the 50 applications he has received, the vast majority have not responded to his follow-ups, and the few who did bailed on their interviews or came but couldn't commit to filling enough shifts.

It shouldn't be this hard, Raprager laments. It's a fun job, one that pays between $20 and $25 an hour, and the only duty is to sit on a chair and read books to kids. No experience necessary.

She "can't be sex offender, or have a criminal offense. They have to be nice, and they have to be able to read, and they have to like children. You know, that's the only requirements," he says. There are free lunches, and holiday bonuses. And yet.

He has one promising candidate, an ESL teacher, but she can't work the whole season. Another Mrs. Claus has offered to come down from Minnesota if he will pay her living expenses, which would put a strain on his budget, but "honestly, we have to consider it." Luckily, he was able to retain his Santa from last year.

But despite Santa's dismal showing this year, there is still jolly news. Even if he can't make it to your local tree-lighting or socially distanced corporate shindig, "Santa Claus is definitely going to deliver presents, and there'll be presents underneath the Christmas tree this year," says Allen.

After all, on Christmas Eve, you only need one.

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

New rule will allow debt collectors to track you down on social media

By michelle singletary
New rule will allow debt collectors to track you down on social media

MICHELLE SINGLETARY COLUMN

Advance for release Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, and thereafter

(For Singletary clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Michelle Singletary

WASHINGTON - One byproduct of the pandemic has been more debtors, and now collection agencies have new ways to track down the people who owe them money.

So watch out who you connect with on Instagram or befriend on Facebook. It could be a debt collector contacting you through a direct message.

Debt collection rules that went into effect Tuesday have expanded the ways debt collectors can chase down debtors. In practice, it may mean millions of consumers can now be bombarded with email and text messages and requests to connect on their social media accounts.

The changes to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which is intended to eliminate abusive debt collection practices, were introduced during the Trump administration when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) became friendlier to the business community.

The CFPB director at the time, Kathy Kraninger, a Trump appointee who resigned at Biden's request, said the rules were intended to "modernize the legal regime for debt collection."

But if left unchecked, this expanded access to consumers could very well contribute to new ways to harass struggling consumers.

At the end of the third quarter this year, 77.6 million consumers had at least one debt in collections with $188 billion in outstanding balances, according to a report by TransUnion.

The collection industry praised the update, arguing that text and email are now the preferred methods for communication for many people.

"The CFPB's debt collection rule is a small step forward in modernizing communications with consumers," Mark Neeb, chief executive of ACA International, the association of credit and collection professionals, said in a statement.

The rules establish certain contact limitations to protect people's privacy and spare them from harassment, abuse or unfair practices. If you're contacted on your social media account, the message has to be private. The debt collectors can't post something that is viewable by the general public or by your friends or followers.

And no subterfuge is allowed. If a debt collector sends you a private message requesting to add you as a friend or contact, the company must make it clear they are attempting to collect a debt, according to the rule changes. They must also give you a way to opt out of receiving further communications from them on that social media platform.

I've followed this issue for years, and while many companies operate within the law, illegal operations can do a lot of damage to innocent consumers. Debt collection isn't wicked. But it can lead to embarrassing, unethical and illegal tactics.

Debt collectors have a limited number of years in which they can sue someone to collect. After the time runs out, unpaid debts are considered "time-barred." But unscrupulous companies try to revive this "zombie debt," as it's called.

Many consumers aren't aware that their debt is no longer collectible. The statute of limitations varies from state to state. Debtors also don't know that many states allow the time-barred clock to reset if they make a small payment on the debt.

Allowing companies to track down people on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram is risky given current illegal practices. Under the changes, telephone calls are limited to seven per week per debt.

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission led an initiative with other federal and state law enforcement agencies against phantom debt collection, which is a practice of coercing consumers to pay debts that don't exist or that they don't really owe. The FTC alleges that one company collected more than $12 million from consumers through illegal debt collection practices. In most cases, the debts never existed or had been previously paid off.

This summer, an Atlanta-based debt collection company, subsequently shut down by the FTC, threatened consumers with arrest and imprisonment to collect nonexistent debts. The collectors posed as law enforcement officers, attorneys, mediators or process servers, the agency said in its complaint against the company.

Debt buyers, who pay pennies on the dollar for defaulted debt, often have scant information other than the person's name, last known address, Social Security number and debt amount. The records may contain little or no documentation at all -- no bills or printouts showing purchases, or previous payments. This leads to mistakes and inflation of what folks owe, including exorbitant collection fees.

The CFPB, now under new leadership, needs to watch debt collection companies like a hawk looking for its prey.

"Too many people are hounded to pay debts they don't even owe," CFPB director Rohit Chopra said. "Abuse and harassment by debt collectors are strictly prohibited under federal law, regardless of whether consumers are being contacted in person, over the phone, or on social media. The new debt collection rules will be useless unless they're enforced."

Chopra said the agency will be checking to see if the rules are working or need to be strengthened further.

In the meantime, be forewarned: The person asking to "friend" you on Facebook may be no friend at all.

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Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary). Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

Why the CIA is so worried about Russia and Ukraine

By david ignatius
Why the CIA is so worried about Russia and Ukraine

DAVID IGNATIUS COLUMN

Advance for release Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, and thereafter

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By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON -- The CIA discovered something scary in October: Russia was moving troops toward the Ukrainian border -- and, unlike in previous border thrusts, was making secret plans about how to use them.

The agency also worried that the potential conflict zone didn't appear to be just the eastern sliver of Ukraine occupied by Russian-backed separatists, which Russian troops had approached the previous April, but a much broader swath of the country. Alarm bells rang at the agency, and then across the U.S. government.

Reports of the Russian buildup couldn't have come at a worse time. President Joe Biden was seeking improved relations with Moscow after his June summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. The Russians seemed to be reciprocating with dialogue on cybersecurity and strategic stability. And the administration had signaled support for an eventual diplomatic deal on Ukraine that would give Putin much of what he wanted.

The tension mounted through November. CIA Director William J. Burns rushed to Moscow at the beginning of the month to warn the Russians that an invasion of Ukraine would shatter the Russian economy and void any hope of rapprochement with the West. But Putin didn't seem to be listening. The Russian buildup continued, accompanied by defiant rhetoric.

As the Ukrainian crisis enters December, the Biden administration is pursuing what policymakers like to call a "dual strategy." To deter a Russian invasion, Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet Wednesday with NATO allies in Latvia to share U.S. intelligence and discuss joint military plans to raise the cost of any Russian invasion. At the same time, the White House has continued high-level conversations with Moscow that could lead to a meeting between Biden and Putin, virtual or in person, before year end.

Russia isn't backing down. It has nearly 100,000 troops close to the border, and administration officials expect that number could increase soon. As NATO plans for contingencies, Russia is boasting of its "unbreakable" military alliance with Beijing. Putin speaks of Moscow's eternal bond with Kyiv in nearly the same way that Chinese leaders demand reunification with Taiwan. He offered a rationale for war in an emotional essay in July arguing that Ukraine and Russia were inseparable.

Putin loves to play mind games with the West. He dials confrontation up and down, sending troops to the front and then blaming America for provoking him; his agents float rumors of coup plots in Kyiv. He invites concessions from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and then, when the Ukrainian enlists Israeli and French leaders to argue his case, spurns him as weak. A former CIA officer who knows Ukraine well explains that Putin is "softening the target, increasing fatigue, distracting the government."

Blinken is likely to warn NATO allies Wednesday that Putin may be preparing a ploy in which he falsely claims that Russian-backed forces have been attacked by Ukraine, as a pretext for taking action. Blinken said last month that Putin made such false claims when he invaded Ukraine in 2014, and that they're part of his "playbook."

The Russian leader wants to be taken seriously by America, but beyond that, he wants payback for Russia's humiliation after the collapse of communism. "Putin actually has a malign attitude toward the United States," explains William B. Taylor Jr., a former ambassador to Kyiv. "He wants to stick it to America in whatever ways he can."

Taylor recalls the warning he gave to Zelensky after he became Ukraine's president in 2019, and was eager to negotiate a deal with Putin: "Don't get sucked in."

The troop movements that began in October were an example of Putin's wily persistence. "The way they did the buildup was not transparent; it was concealed, done partly at night," explains John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who's now at the Atlantic Council. He argues that for all Putin's boldness in staging this new, partly covert plan, "his game is bluff."

Putin's biggest problem may be public opinion -- in both Ukraine and Russia. As much as Putin talks about the mystical unity of Kyiv and Moscow, people in both countries don't want conflict.

An August poll by the National Democratic Institute found that 76 percent of Ukrainians wanted a "fully functioning democracy." That goal was endorsed by 71 percent of those polled in the east; sentiment in Kharkiv, near the Russian border, matched that in the capital Kyiv. Asked to name a threat to the country, 82 percent of Ukrainians cited "Russian military aggression."

Putin is popular in Russia, with a 67 percent approval rating in October, according to the Levada Center in Moscow. But a May survey by the group showed that the percentage of people who wanted to stay out of a war in Ukraine was identical to the number who wanted Russia to intervene. Just 16 percent of Russians thought a Ukraine war would boost Putin's authority, and 31 percent said it would bring dissatisfaction.

How do you stop a "master of audacity," as a former CIA official describes Putin? One way is to talk to him, as Biden is planning to do, and offer a dignified retreat. But if that fails and Putin invades Ukraine, the United States and its allies are discussing this week how to make him pay as heavy a cost as possible.

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Contact David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost

Are we overreacting to omicron? I hope so.

By kathleen parker
Are we overreacting to omicron? I hope so.

KATHLEEN PARKER COLUMN

Advance for release Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, and thereafter

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By Kathleen Parker

It's just a guess, but I'm willing to bet the kit and caboodle that most Americans aren't shedding tears over President Joe Biden's ban on travelers from nations affected by covid-19's latest variant.

You've got to hand it to the virus: Unlike most of its human incubators, covid-19 knows what it's doing. No matter how many defenses we concoct, or how many vaccines we invent, the virus adapts and reconfigures itself, each time improving its chances for survival.

This time, covid-19's new omicron variant has hit southern Africa, where vaccines have been in short supply. Thus far, scientists worry that omicron is more transmissible than the delta variant.

As a result, several countries, including the United States, Japan, Israel, Canada, the members of the E.U. and possibly others are closing their borders to most travelers from eight countries: South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. The list is likely to grow as the virus spreads and because it is possible, I hear, to fly somewhere else before catching a plane to the United States.

Some African leaders have called the travel bans an overreaction, but we have already tried underreacting. As I recall, that didn't go so well. The World Health Organization has warned against imposing travel restrictions and urged a "risk-based and scientific approach" -- whatever that means. South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla has said the restrictions are unjustified. How does he know? How does anyone know anything -- yet? They don't, and that's the point. Hence the travel bans.

The relative risk of widespread infection from travelers may be statistically insignificant, but why take a chance? If you ask whether my conscience is burdened by the ban's effect on a relative few, my honest answer may put un-woke readers in mind of "Gone With The Wind's" Rhett Butler. Or, perhaps, Woodstock's Country Joe and The Fish. I'm dating myself, I realize, so I will spell it out: I don't give a damn.

Barring the economic collapse of any of these eight countries, due to short-term travel restrictions, isn't it merely sensible to try to stem dissemination of the variant for a few weeks until we know more about its transmissibility and the effectiveness of existing vaccines?

Yes. Of course. Biden has called the U.S. ban a "precautionary measure" until we know more. Meanwhile, scientists will be mimicking bartenders by shaking and then testing vials filled with a mixture of vaccinated human blood and the omicron variant, as CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta has explained the process.

It's possible that some people will miss spending the holiday season with loved ones -- just as it's possible that we here at home will face the return of unpleasant restrictions that we have only recently believed were safely behind us.

But neither represents the end of life as we know it. They are disappointments. I sympathize with Ruth Daines-Slack, who told the BBC she was planning to travel from Cape Town to the United Kingdom for Christmas and her mom's 100th birthday celebration. But a woman who has made it to 100 knows something about disappointment and a good long visit on Skype may have to do until the ban is lifted.

Apologies for the cynicism, but we humans have become so spoiled and entitled, we can hardly suffer a slow Uber driver, a long line at the grocery or bank, a shortage of nearly anything, or the slightest disruptions in our cherished routines. Missing a flight can seem like the end of the world. But once more -- and probably not for the last time -- we all need to take steps to limit the spread of a deadly disease for just a while.

One country, Japan, offers a compelling model. Japan is a vibrant, friendly, high-functioning country, which is why so many travelers want to go there. Japan knows how to do stuff. Like shut their borders. They have closed their doors to virtually everyone for a month.

As of 2019, about 76,000 Americans were living in Japan and I'm a bit surprised that number isn't higher. We seem to be attracted to the pristine and the competent, even if we can't duplicate it ourselves. There's a reason for this: Japan doesn't put up with anybody's nonsense. Stay home, says Japan, we don't care if your feelings are hurt.

It's apparently not in our DNA to delay gratification, but the world would benefit immeasurably by cultivating patience and a culture of grit. In the meantime, we should aspire to be more like Japan and the virus. Both adapt to reality for maximum survival -- and both know what they're doing.

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Kathleen Parker's email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

Woman savoring last few hours before getting turned back into vessel

By alexandra petri
Woman savoring last few hours before getting turned back into vessel

ALEXANDRA PETRI COLUMN

Advance for release Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, and thereafter

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By Alexandra Petri

WASHINGTON -- It was hard to believe the time was running out. Maybe it would not, after all. It had been so long -- nearly 49 years, with a few scares along the way -- that the illusion had held, that she was a citizen, a person with rights to be respected in her own right. That not merely her life was worthy of protection, but also her ability to make choices for her own future. That she was just as good as any state legislator, and possessed certain rights they could not abridge!

Those 48 years had flown by. But when the court's clock struck, her run would in all likelihood begin to end. She would stop being a person with autonomy over her own body that the law was bound to respect. She would go back to being a vessel that might potentially contain a person, a vessel whose rights ended once that possibility was considered.

It had been so nice, thinking that she could go anywhere in the United States and the laws would have to acknowledge her right to decide whether she wanted to be pregnant, that any doctor who treated her could give her correct information about what risks she faced, that if her life were threatened, her life would carry weight.

But no. Her rights were all the alienable kind, it turned out, and she was nothing more than a sort of empty clay jar into which, if she were sufficiently blessed, a person might one day be deposited. Her mistake!

She pondered what to do while the Supreme Court heard arguments about Mississippi's abortion law and deliberated upon them and formed an opinion. There were so many person things she had liked getting to do. She was glad she had gotten some voting in, earlier in the month. Maybe she should sue someone in court, or hold a job outside the home, or try to express an opinion in print somewhere. Maybe she could go feed some birds. Maybe she could pursue a little happiness. She could get a latte!

There were so many choices that were wonderful if you made them for yourself and nightmarish if others forced them upon you.

Forty-nine years was long enough that she had started to think of herself as a full member of the body politic. She had begun to feel that she would definitely be able to use medical science to avoid dying. She had watched people be born during that time who did not know what it was like to be anything other than a person.

It would be hardest for them, to be so forcibly reminded they were not. To have their autonomy wrested from them. Not only women, either -- plenty of people who would be shocked to find themselves downgraded because they possessed parts the state felt were public domain.

She sat on a bench and watched the leaves fall. It had been nice while it lasted, being a person. Getting turned back into a vessel would be unfortunate. But maybe she would not stay a vessel long.

It was a little surprising they thought they had the power to do it.

She could see them salivating already at the prospect of having so many people transformed so quickly, and overnight. They seemed to think it was a real possibility.

As if they got to decide. As if she would not fight.

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Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

White parents are learning what Latinos and African Americans already know: Schools disrespect parents

By ruben navarrette jr.
White parents are learning what Latinos and African Americans already know: Schools disrespect parents

RUBEN NAVARRETTE COLUMN

FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE

(For Navarrette clients)

By RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.

SAN DIEGO -- Those people who wince at critical race theory, flout mask mandates and oppose vaccine requirements have discovered that teachers and school administrators often talk down to parents.

Where have these people been? Of course schools treat parents with disdain and condescension. That's what they do.

It's no wonder that the relationship between parents and schools is so damaged. We hand over our children to school officials, and too often those people respond by making us feel uneducated or uninformed when we challenge them or question their methods.

In 30 years of writing about K-12 education, I've heard from scores of parents who got the brushoff when they went to their kid's school to voice concerns. My favorite example is the Mexican American father in Central California who said that the principal at his son's school couldn't wait to show him the door -- despite the fact that dad was a Harvard graduate, a lawyer with a Master's degree in education, and a member of the school board. What hope is there for the rest of us?

Educators make lousy students. They don't listen. They lecture. And they usually don't see parents as their equals.

It's what I saw firsthand as a reporter and metro columnist in Arizona in the late 1990s, when I covered a grassroots revolt of Latino parents who rose up against bilingual education.

First, school administrators tried to "gaslight" the Latino parents into thinking they were imagining things. Then, they argued that children would learn English if they were taught their lessons in Spanish.

Sure. The best way to learn algebra is to study biology.

The parents were dismissively told all the "research" supported the theory that native-language instruction was the only way to teach students with limited English proficiency. Never mind that -- as one independent researcher, political scientist Christine Rossell, pointed out -- most of the research that propped up bilingual education relied on non-scientific methods. Never mind that some of that research was funded by organizations that pushed bilingual education. No conflict of interest there.

A big part of the problem is arrogance. In the school setting, teachers probably believe that they're the experts. They've read the books, taken the courses and studied how the education system works.

Except that every teacher knows that his or her job is going to be much harder without the support of parents. And support can be hard to come by when people feel insulted.

For example, the Latino parents in Arizona were basically told: "Come back when you've read the research." You'd expect better customer service from people who are on the public payroll.

That schools disrespect parents might come as news to privileged White folks, but Latino and African American parents have been dealing with it since before the invention of blackboards and chalk.

It's what former President Barack Obama recalled in his memoir, "Dreams from My Father": the frustration he felt trying to advocate for parents in Chicago's public schools. Even when the schools were run by African Americans, Black parents were still treated shoddily. Their children were tracked away from college prep courses and disciplined more often than White students. And when parents complained, their concerns were largely ignored. In fact, when African American are asked why they support school choice, one thing they say is that they want their voices heard. Why? Because they feel that no one listens to them.

As a young community organizer fresh out of Columbia University, Obama saw a lot of this firsthand. It taught him the one major lesson that all education reformers will learn sooner or later: The public schools don't exist for the benefit of the kids who learn there, but for the convenience of the adults who work there.

That lesson followed Obama into the White House. In pushing his $4 billion education reform initiative, "Race To The Top," he battled teachers unions and insisted that schools be held accountable for student performance. To access the funds, states had to eliminate "firewalls" that prevent student achievement from influencing teacher pay. Some states -- most notably California -- turned down the cash rather than make the change. So, for the most part, Obama's education reforms went nowhere.

Now, fast-forward to the current battles over masking and vaccines and critical race theory. Only when White parents experience insult and condescension at the hands of the public schools are we told that we're facing a national crisis.

The truth is, Latino and African American parents have been staring down that crisis for a while now. They've just been doing it alone.

- - -

Navarrette's email address is crimscribe@icloud.com. His podcast, "Ruben in the Center," is available through every podcast app.

(c) 2021, The Washington Post Writers Group

Lauren Boebert is what George W. Bush called the 'worst of humankind'

By dana milbank
Lauren Boebert is what George W. Bush called the 'worst of humankind'

DANA MILBANK COLUMN

Advance for release Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, and thereafter

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By Dana Milbank

WASHINGTON -- 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."

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.

- - -

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

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