Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show” and a columnist for The Daily Beast. Follow him @DeanObeidallah. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
The Conservative Political Action Conference made it clear over the weekend in Texas whose side it’s on in the fight against domestic terrorism.
First, it featured former President Donald Trump as its star speaker. Here is a man who not only was allegedly involved in waging an attempted coup to overturn the 2020 election but who also summoned his supporters to Washington on January 6, 2021, for a “wild” protest. Then on that fateful day, he inflamed them with his words and directed them to head to the US Capitol to “Stop the Steal.” And as some of his supporters brutally beat police officers, built gallows while chanting to hang his vice president and broke into the Capitol to try to stop Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s win, Trump did nothing for more than three hours to stop the attack. (Trump has denied responsibility for the insurrection.)
CPAC also welcomed as a speaker Viktor Orban, Hungary’s autocratic Prime Minister, who a week earlier had given a speech in which he declared that in Europe “we do not want to become peoples of mixed race.” Those words prompted a longtime Orban aide to resign, slamming his remarks as “pure Nazi text.”
But the cherry on the sundae was a CPAC panel showcasing Brandon Straka, who pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in the January 6 attack, as part of a larger exhibit designed to elicit sympathy for the Capitol attackers still in prison.
As part of his guilty plea to a misdemeanor, Straka admitted to urging the violent mob to rip a riot shield from a police officer, shouting, “Take it! Take it!,” The Washington Post reported.
Straka ultimately received 90 days’ home confinement and three years’ probation after agreeing to cooperate with law enforcement. But just last week, a federal judge slammed Straka for making public comments inconsistent with his statements to investigators, raising the possibility that he could be charged with lying to federal authorities, NPR reported.
Nevertheless, Straka appeared on a CPAC panel with Republican Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, criticizing the House member for not doing more to help protesters who have been arrested in connection with the January 6 riot and eliciting jeers from the audience for the lawmaker, according to Vice News.
In an apparent effort to get into the crowd’s good graces, according to Vice News and video of the event, Biggs then vowed to “start defunding some of these bad agencies, the FBI, the DOJ.” Yes, a GOP member of Congress reportedly told the crowd that he would begin to defund the Justice Department and FBI for having the audacity to prosecute January 6 attackers.
Then came the pièce de résistance: a headline-grabbing, jaw-dropping exhibit that featured a prison cell that housed a person dressed in an orange jumpsuit, wearing a red “Make America Great Again” cap. CPAC attendees were invited to put on headsets to listen to actual messages from the January 6 attackers. A CPAC representative told BuzzFeed News that the #Walk Away group founded by Straka ran the booth. In the past, CPAC has reportedly banned a booth from an atheist organization and the Log Cabin Republicans, an LGBT group, as an event sponsor.
On Thursday, an actor played the prisoner, complete with tears as he stood in front of a chalkboard that read, “Where is Everyone?” But on Friday – in a surreal case of life imitating art – Straka portrayed the prisoner in the cell. Vice News reported that the line to see Straka stretched clear to the back of the exhibit hall.
It wasn’t long before right-wing firebrand Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene – who has long called the jailed January 6 attackers “political prisoners” – entered the fake jail cell and led a prayer for those still imprisoned for their role in the January 6 attack.
Let’s put politics aside and look at the facts. January 6 was an act of “domestic terrorism,” as FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before Congress. Just as we would call anyone involved in the far deadlier September 11, 2001, attacks “terrorists” – we would do the same for anyone who played a role on January 6. For some people, the idea of calling a white American a terrorist is uncomfortable, but there’s no place for timidity when the stakes are this high.
Those behind the mock jail cell at CPAC want you to have sympathy for the worst of the January 6 attackers. The overwhelmingly majority of people arrested in connection with the January 6 attack have been granted bail, according to PolitiFact.
Those defendants still in jail deserve to be there because of the severity of crimes with which they have been charged. Among them are members of the Oath Keepers militia and the Proud Boys – some of whom were charged with “seditious conspiracy” – and others who are accused of brutally beating police officers and other heinous acts. Judges hearing the charges against these suspects have deemed that they pose a threat to the community were they to be released on bail.
Imagine if, about 18 months after a terrorist attack, a booth at a Democratic event attempted to elicit sympathy for those arrested for their role in a deadly strike on our nation! Critics would lash out at Democrats as unpatriotic Americans who support terrorism. And they would be right to do so.
That’s the same revulsion the vile display at CPAC deserves from all of us.