Dana Milbank's take on Heritage's 'ugly' Benghazi panel is utterly dishonest

Lurking in the hearts of both participants in and attendees of a panel discussion on the Benghazi attack hosted, though not sponsored by, by the conservative Heritage Foundation on Monday is darkness, xenophobia, and malignant Islamophobia. At least, that’s the picture painted by Washington Post’s Dana Milbank on Tuesday.

In his widely-circulated op-ed, “Heritage’s ugly Benghazi panel,” Milbank ripped Heritage for veering away from examining the issues surrounding the attacks 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.’”

But the truly egregious offense came during a question and answer period. Saba Ahmed, a headscarf-clad American University law student, asked the panel whether the struggle against fundamentalist Islam could ever be won with a strictly military strategy. “We portray Islam and all Muslims as bad, but there’s 1.8 billion followers of Islam,” Ahmed said. “We have 8 million-plus Muslim Americans in this country and I don’t see them represented here.”

After a rather mundane, four-minute long response to this question from Center for Security Policy founder Frank Gaffney in which he offered the usual assertions that the War on Terror is not a war against Muslims or even Islam, ACT! for America founder Brigitte Gabriel delivered the impassioned response Milbank apparently found uncouth.

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

Your first clue that this is a rather selective reading of what occurred at this panel should be that the last six paragraphs are nearly bereft of quotes presented in complete sentences.

Fortunately, Media Matters for America dug up a video of the exchange in question which they may have believed supported Milbank’s case. An objective viewing of the material suggests just the opposite.

Gabriel delivered a fiery, impassioned response to Ahmed’s question, and appeared to take offense to the suggestion that “We portray Islam and all Muslims as bad,” a straw man that Americans have been forced to address on a near daily basis since September 12, 2001.

“Great question,” Gabriel began. “What I find so amazing is, since the beginning of this panel, which we are hear about Benghazi attack against our people, not one person mentioned Muslims. We are here against Islam, or we are launching war against Muslims. We are here to discuss how four Americans died and what our government is doing.”

“We were not here to bash Muslims,” she continued. “You were the one who brought up the issue about ‘most Muslims,’ not us.”

“There are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world today,” Gabriel elaborated. “of course not all of them are radicals. The majority of them are peaceful people. The radicals are estimated to be between 15 to 25 percent, according to all intelligence services around the world. That leaves 70 percent of them peaceful people.”

She added, however, that this means that between 180 and 300 million people are “dedicated to the destruction of Western civilization.”

Gabriel violated an unspoken code of decorum when she declared, correctly, that the National Socialist movement in Germany did not represent the majority of Germans, but it did drive the post –Weimar agenda. She said the same of the Bolshevik Party in Russia and the Chinese who executed tens of millions during the Cultural Revolution. “The peaceful majority were irrelevant,” Gabriel insisted.

“I’m glad you are here,” she said, “but where are the others speaking out?”

Gabriel’s fiery monologue resulted in a standing ovation from her audience, many of whom probably share her opinions.

Gabriel then asked if Ahmed, who spoke with an accent in the same way that she did, was an ‘American citizen” – a moment portrayed in Milbank’s column as some lifting of the veil of bigotry behind Gabriel’s remarks. When Ahmed replied that she was, Gabriel scolded her for seeming to care more about how Muslims perceive America’s war on terror rather than how terrorists killed four American service personnel in Benghazi.

Chris Plante, who Milbank said “demanded” of Ahmed an accounting of who made up the peaceful wing of the Islamic community, closed by saying that “everyone agrees the [war on terror] can’t be won just militarily.” When Ahmed said that she represents the moderate Muslims whom she was defending, the audience and panelists erupted in applause.

There is nothing “ugly” here. There was nothing xenophobic or Islamophobic in this exchange, but merely an expression of opinions which Milbank apparently does not share.

Milbank defended his take by claiming that it was the reaction of the audience, not the panelists, which was the most damning. While that may be true, I have not hear his recording of the audience members surrounding him, it is a bit like fishing in the YouTube comments section in order to a make a point about the deteriorating discourse in the country. Those concerned citizens who attend a panel like this are not representative of any broad political movement, as much as Milbank appears to want them to be.

The rest of Milbank’s column is just as underwhelming. One audience member submitted the debunked assertion that President Barack Obama “watched people die” at Benghazi in real time.

“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 Web site,’” Milbank reported.

These are rather distasteful assertions – assertions which I would not have made. But their dark, ugliness is certainly debatable. Milbank, understanding that, made it clear that it was the exchange between Gabriel and Ahmed which was the true offense at this conference.

Watch the video. Do you see what Milbank saw? I didn’t.

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David Strom 8:41 PM on January 30, 2023