After Hamas attack in Israel, right-wing media revert to post-9/11 tropes

If you closed your eyes in the last few days, you might think the right-wing media were broadcasting from a time machine.

They’re embracing 9/11-style Islamophobia in the wake of recent Hamas attacks in Israel that left 1,300 Israelis dead and cost 1,500 lives in Gaza as of publication.

Jewish Currents editor David Klion summarized the historical parallels in his recent piece for n+1 magazine, explaining how crusading hawks in D.C. came together after 9/11 with right-wing religious extremists to “to see their ideas put into bloody practice.”

The rally-around-the-flag moment that brought devastating consequences to the country: The costs of the resulting War on Terror were trillions of dollars, nearly a million lives due to direct conflict and millions more from the ripple effects, unchecked expansion of executive power, and the diminishment of civil liberties and privacy rights of all Americans, especially Muslims, who were also subjected to a wave of hate crimes.

Klion aptly points to how liberal voices in the mainstream are echoing those of the past. The same bloodthirst, just at a different volume, is now permeating right-wing media reactions to war in Israel. Right-wing media figures are fantasizing about the mass murder of Palestinians in Gaza and reviving conspiratorial talking points about terror cells and radical political operatives secretly embedded in the core institutions of American life.

The most striking examples come from The Charlie Kirk Show. On October 9, Senior Editor-At-Large Joel Pollak gave a full-throated endorsement of genocide as casually as if he were discussing whether to take a walk despite a chance of rain.

“I’m OK with it,” Pollak said, having previously tweeted a similar sentiment. “If it comes down to ethnic cleansing -- you want to cleanse my people, I’ll cleanse yours first. I mean, that’s where we are.”

“The vast majority of Muslims” hold a “medieval worldview” Kirk declared the next day. “They don't hold Western values. No, this is civilization, aka Western values, versus barbarism.”

Later in the program: “Make sure you have a gun,” in case you have to use it against “activated” terrorist Muslim immigrants, he said, and has since repeated the sentiment.

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Citation From the October 11, 2023, edition of Salem Media Group's The Charlie Kirk Show 

These types of comments are commonplace: Steven Crowder declared on his Rumble show that “too many” Muslims support violence against Christians and Jews, before claiming this was the view of the Prophet Muhammed, and radio host Mark Levin painted all Palestinians as supporters of Hamas to justify civilian casualties during the indiscriminate bombing of Gaza.

Right-wing media figures are also using this opportunity to boost their never-ending campaign against migrants at the southern border. This includes Steve Bannon, who as executive chairman of Breitbart and then Trump’s campaign manager in 2016 was the most critical media figure in shifting immigration extremism from the fringe of the Republican Party to a central plank of the presidential platform. Like many of his peers, he constantly fearmongers about threats coming from the southern border to paint President Joe Biden as incompetent. Now, suddenly, overnight, his unspecified terrorist stalking horse is aligned with Hamas.

“There’s a fifth column in this country,” Bannon declared, referring to the conspiratorial idea that an enemy element is silently embedded in a country for the purpose of undermining wartime efforts. “The problem with the fifth column -- may be millions of people, millions of invaders,” suggesting that immigrants coming across the southern border intend to commit terrorist acts.

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Citation From the October 11, 2023, edition of War Room

But more than any other conspiracy theory, the idea of “sleeper cells” of terrorists waiting to strike against innocent Americans across the country has been the most ubiquitous War on Terror-style talking point in recent days.

It harkens back to after 9/11, when the federal government brought multiple cases against Muslims, accusing them of being part of “sleeper cells,” that subsequently fell apart in court.

This week, after wondering out loud about how many Hamas “sleeper cells” could be present in the U.S., Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk said “Hamas could send whoever they want. It's possible Hamas has hundreds or thousands of militants on the interior of the United States ready to bomb hospitals, blow up schools, or just rain terror.”

The next day he told his audience members they “better have a firearm” to defend against “sleeper cells” that have entered via the southern border.

Serial plagiarist and right-wing podcaster Benny Johnson said the United States has an “enemy within” in the form of “sleeper cells” that “nobody has any idea” where they’ve gone. On X (formerly Twitter), neo-Nazi collaborator Jack Posobiec posted, “Wait til Hamas activates the sleeper cells that already came across our border.”

This chorus sings a strikingly different tune from recent GOP efforts to reach out to Muslim communities amid a right-wing campaign against LGBTQ+ people and curricula in schools ahead of the 2024 presidential elections. The hypocrisy is laid bare now that the media environment has shifted to wartime bloodlust.

Only a short time ago, dust-ups in Maryland and Michigan over LGBTQ+ school curriculum looked like a fruitful opportunity to cynically gain political power. When anger erupted at a school board meeting in Dearborn, Michigan, the GOP swooped in, appointing Rola Makki as the first Muslim American official for the state party. Now, Charlie Kirk describes Dearborn, home to America’s largest Muslim population per capita, as a “captured city” particularly at risk of terrorist acts.

Media Matters launched in 2004, and our archives offer a sobering view into the parallels between the war drums of then and now.

There’s Michael Smerconish saying Muslims praying in public was “wrong” and an intentional reminder of terrorism. Ann Coulter’s column in the National Review demanding “we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” Brian Kilmeade’s announcement that “if your name is Yusuf Islam,” the changed name of Cat Stevens, airport security better have a good close look.” Rush Limbaugh referring to Guantanamo Bay as a “Muslim resort” where “Muslim extremists and terrorist wannabes can get together for rest and relaxation.” Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich comparing Muslims to Nazis.

There were the panics about Sharia, “Islamofascism,” and a proposed Islamic community center in downtown Manhattan. And of course, the birther smear, the “terrorist fist jab” and other fearmongering attempting to paint President Barack Obama as a Kenyan-born Muslim. The Muslim ban, “no-go zones” in Sweden -- we could go on.

The reverberating consequences of that period are now so deeply embedded in our political institutions that many, especially young people born after 9/11, cannot imagine a world without vicious Islamophobia, seemingly limitless executive powers, and diminished civil liberties. Americans, especially those who lived through the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and passage of the Patriot Act, have no excuse to sleepwalk into repeating these same mistakes. This responsibility weighs especially heavy on those privileged enough to hold the ever-powerful microphones of mainstream media. They're already failing to meet the moment.