A System of Compassion

On November 19th, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar wrote a remarkable letter.

This letter has been on my mind, as it touches on a nice swath of issues that I constantly think about through my daily life: the ease of modern communication and the poisonous effect of internet radicalization, relationships between people and groups in a diverse democracy, the purpose of criminal punishment, the balance between mercy and justice, designing systems to engender good behavior and repress the bad. The letter is also something of a turning-point for Omar to me: the point where a politician who has been an object of often-undeserved controversy during her whole short public tenure transcends petty politics and speaks to something greater.


The background: on March 21, 2019, a man named Patrick Carlineo called the office of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and spoke to a staffer. In that conversation, Carlineo said that Omar was a “terrorist” who worked for the “Muslim Brotherhood,” and stated: “I’ll put a bullet in her fucking skull.”

With a sneering impulsive remark, Carlineo – white, in his fifties, hailing from the Southern Tier of New York State many hundreds of miles away from his victim – set into course the mighty wheels of the federal government’s system of justice that rapidly resulted in his arrest and arraignment in the Western District of New York. The criminal complaint charged Carlineo with threatening to murder a United States official in retaliation for the performance of her official duties under 18 USC 115(a)(1)(B). Further, when the FBI came to Carlineo’s house, they found he possessed two shotguns, three rifles, and a handgun loaded with ammo — all prohibited for a felon like Carlineo.

The federal system is notoriously difficult for a criminal defendant to escape with favorable results; essentially every district has a 90%+ conviction rate. In 2018, statistics show 458 defendants were charged in the Western District of New York; only 22 went to trial, only 6 acquitted. Carlineo had spent a great deal of free time posting on his Facebook threats of violence against both Muslims and politicians. Carlineo had posted a picture of a white man pointing a shotgun into the camera with the caption: “HOW TO WINK AT A MUSLIM,” in addition to a post hoping that Barack Obama and Eric Holder were assassinated “like the Kennedys.” Calineo’s threat to “put a bullet in her fucking head” was made six days after the targeted massacre of Muslim worshipers at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, where white nationalist terrorist Brenton Tarrant live-streamed himself firing a shot into the head of a wounded young Muslim woman asking for help. What might be considered disturbing but idle posturing in one context conjures a despicable image of coldhearted hatred and cruelty in another, which perhaps was fresh in Carlineo’s mind as he called Omar to issue his threat. 

Like virtually all of his fellow federal defendants,Carlineo pleaded guilty this week, facing up to ten years in a federal penitentiary for his stupid, pointless phone threat. As a prior felony offender and fairly unsympathetic defendant, Carlineo might not have expected leniency. And thereafter Omar sent out her letter to Judge Geraci.

Writes Omar in her tweet;  “I write to ask for a system of compassion to be applied in his sentencing.” While acknowledging that political violence, couched in hatred of her religion, is dangerous to both her as an individual and to society as a whole, she writes that “[p]unishing the defendant with a lengthy prison sentence or a burdensome fine would not rehabilitate him. It would not repair the harm he has caused. It would only increase his anger and resentment.” She urges the court to show mercy to Carlineo, so that he might be “given the opportunity to make amends and seek redemption.” There’s something beautiful about this to me: given the  popular feeling of a culture war constantly ratcheting up in tension and polarization, that such an honest and vulnerable request for mercy might come from a politician who easily might have said nothing – and who easily might have viewed such mercy as wasted – has inspired me to consider the necessity of mercy in our justice system.


Carlineo’s internet presence depicts a hardened bigot and reactionary, indulging freely in violent fantasies against minority groups and liberal politicians. An adherent of self-soothing dolchstoßlegende, he believes that if only his designated enemies were eliminated, the United States might be great. He is hardly the only person indulging in such bigotry against Omar, and her compatriots; the “Squad” of young, progressive female Congresswomen has inspired unique hate among portions of the population. Omar in particular inspires a lot of hate. More thoughtful opponents might dislike her solely for her opposition to the U.S.’ foreign policy towards South America, or maybe for her abstention from recognizing the Armenian genocide. But the average critic partakes in a more typical hatred based in prejudice. “In the months leading up to the 2018 election, 40 percent of all 90,000 tweets mentioning Omar had a definite ‘Islamophobic/anti-immigrant’ slant. But even though they were both the subjects of internet rancor, Omar attracted more than twice the level of trolling than Tlaib, a U.S.-born Palestinian Muslim who doesn’t wear a hijab,” writes the Minneapolis City Pages.

In her home state of Minnesota, where I lived for three years 2016-2019 and where I cast my vote for her as my congresswoman, I perceived that Omar inspires a very particular sort of hatred, based not in her politics but in her race and religion. Her race and religion stand out in a state that up until recently was near-totally Scandinavian – more so in the rural countryside rather than her urban home district. Writes the Star Tribune on this urban-rural political divide, “‘The attention to white privilege is a cultural marker of 612 values that does not resonate positively,’ said a student of rural Minnesota. It shines a spotlight on racial identity in a region that is mostly ‘unfamiliar with diversity and the inclusionary language used in the metro.’ Although some outstate areas welcome immigrants, refugees, and people of color, many parts of Minnesota remain 95% white. Even as people of color have moved in large numbers to Willmar, Worthington, Pelican Rapids and Walnut Grove, nearby townships remain overwhelmingly white, with residents having little personal familiarity with racial and ethnic diversity. Charges of white privilege, one rural researcher explained, are understood in rural Minnesota as “metro privilege — many people [here] are struggling to find and keep a job and make ends meet.”

Minneapolis and St. Paul are famously liberal cities — Donald Trump did not win a single precinct in 2016 (even in the city of “New York values,” Trump could pick up some slices of South Brooklyn, eastern Bronx, and Staten Island!). Yet this outspoken liberalism comes with contradictions – there are massive and shameful racial disparities in wealth, income, and educational attainment in the Twin Cities, and the NAACP has named Minneapolis one of the worst places for African-Americans. Outside the cities, oftentimes the reports of racial animus seem dire. I worked for an immigration clinic that specialized in rural Latin American migrant communities in southern Minnesota, and it seemed everyone had a story of the local old-guard white Minnesotans openly despising them to the point of cursing them in the street — stone cold racism sounding more similar to the Jim Crow South than to the pleasant state of Lake Wobegon and Walter Mondale. Thirty minutes outside the city of Minneapolis is Sherburne County Jail, the immigrant detention center, where it seemed every guard’s car in the prison parking lot had some variation of bumper sticker reading “Close the Border,” “Build the Wall,” or an image  of the United States filled-in with the words “Fuck Off, We’re Full.” I had dread in my heart for the detainees who were tended by such guards. Just a little further up the river in the small city of St. Cloud, the local high school was in the grip of terrible racial tension: “Somali students told the Star Tribune of a pervasive climate of bullying toward girls who wore hijabs at the school. They said students spat on them from the top of the stairwell at the place they used to pray, told them to go back to their country, jumped on their cafeteria tables and stepped on their food, and knocked coffee cups out of their hands.”

The reactions and attitudes of these two distinct camps of Minnesotan — the performative solicitousness of the urban citizen, and the bristling distrust and lashing-out of the rural citizen – both flow from a core demographic shift evolving since the early 1990s. Minnesota has observed an influx of East Africans into Minneapolis; Omar is their representative, both literally and symbolically in the minds of Minnesotans as an emblem for the changing of their city. The neighborhood of Cedar-Riverside, just east of downtown, is the seat of the East African community, and as such inspires a lot of fearfulness and barely-concealed racism on the part of many Minnesotans (and non-Minnesotans: it was this neighborhood that found conservative activist Jacob Wohl prowling around with a camera deeming it a no-go sharia zone). Because of this change, Omar defeated longtime representative Phyllis Kahn, symbol of the old guard, in the primary to see who would accede to Keith Ellison’s vacated congressional seat. 

It is natural for city demographics to shift in this country, and for their political representation to shift in turn; there are no more Italian congressmen in north Newark or Irish congressmen in Southie. Letters like Omar’s — gracious, magnanimous, appealing to higher societal values of clemency rather than the hollow satisfaction of revenge – are a part of this assimilation process: as a relative newcomer, she cites higher American cultural ideals of due process and fairness. The subtext to the letter is “I am one of you, and though I may be different than you in some ways, I share your values; I represent and defend you, no matter how you might be different from me.” Through this, I can see clearly the community of Minnesotans who treated Omar and her community at first with suspicion, and now with respect and then acceptance. It resembles the immigrant groups of generations past who went from suspicious outsiders to pillars-without -question of the American polity. Whereas the old-stock of Americas great-grandfathers might have envisioned the Irishman as a superstitious, wife-battering pub brawler or a Fenian revolutionist, the success of statesmen like Al Smith, Daniel Moynihan, and John Kennedy have completed their assimilation into the United States. As they moved up the Bowery from the slums to tonier neighborhoods, so one day will the East Africans of Minneapolis move from Cedar-Riverside out to Blaine and Wayzata, with their descendants viewing the bigotry against their forebears as a mark of a thankfully-bygone era.

Minnesota seems like they are in an early stage of this process — still suspicious of the newcomer, still unused to their presence. As a New Jersey native, some of Minnesota’s particular hangups about immigration seemed bizarre to me, though I recognize that Minnesota has historically been far more homogeneous than New Jersey. New Jersey has been an immigrant destination for generations, with Italians moving in great numbers to Newark, Irish to Jersey City, Koreans to Fort Lee, Puerto Ricans to Perth Amboy, Arabs to Clifton, Poles to Wallington, Colombians to Hackensack. While there are issues, it always felt more diverse by class and race on the East Coast than in the Midwest. My town growing up was almost evenly white and Hispanic and almost evenly Republican and Democrat. Although political affiliations did not particularly correlate to race: the town above mine was used in post-World War II films to re-educate the Axis powers on how democracy works, as it was one of the few racially-integrated suburbs in the country in the 1940s. Yet, even out east fellow Squad member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez inspires some rancor in the tenor levied at Omar. Like Omar, Ocasio-Cortez also cited higher philosophical ideals with grace to settle a dispute with Brooklyn politician Dov Hikind. Again, this is the kind of action that makes me think the Squad – speaking to old-school American ideals rather than radicalism – will be a lasting set of figures rather than flashes in the media circus to be gone by the next election cycle.


There has been criticism levied at Omar’s letter. Replying to Omar’s Twitter post are a lot of people who are motivated by concern, cautioning her not to let her guard down, and that we can’t afford to go easy on criminals who threaten politicians. There is merit in this fear. In the U.S., where there is a history of racial intimidation as a political tactic, it is easy to imagine how a small minority of actors can inspire terror in aggregate through threats alone. But there is also a worry that a single criminal defendant might be treated as a paragon for evil, obscuring the systemic problem that created him. Carlineo, though a loathsome figure who has chosen to glorify his racial prejudice and bigotry in the public face he shows the world, is an individual defendant who must be judged as an individual, not as the representative of an amorphous group of malefactors from which we must defend the country.

Another wing of critics might view Omar’s letter as an opportunity to push restorative justice. I believe an offender who’s committed a crime is not automatically irredeemably evil or deserving of severe punishment, and I support helping people reintegrate into society and not be permanently cast as exiles. But often, proponents of restorative justice basically concede that there is no ability to protect victims, predicated on the belief that offenders will seek vengeance. Take Michelle Alexander, a proponent of the philosophy who gained fame from the book “The New Jim Crow”. Writing in the NYT: “The people who choose to participate [in a restorative justice nonprofit] are victims of serious violent felonies — people who have been shot, stabbed or robbed — and who decide that they would prefer to get answers from the person who harmed them, be heard in a restorative justice circle…In fact, many victims find that incarceration actually makes them feel less safe. They worry that others will be angry with them for reporting the crime and retaliate.” Mercy and justice go together, but mercy offered through intimidation and fear is no real mercy. “Forgive this guy, or he’ll only hurt you again and worse” is not innovative or progressive; it’s trying to port a tactic best used for interpersonal problems/abuse in social circles into the justice system where consequences are far more severe, and where the need for stability and consistency more urgent. This suggests that whoever can put on the most convincing act or appear the most intimidating gets freedom. It privileges abusers of the process, those with social capital, inveterate liars, and the people charismatic enough to slip through the system again and again. As rage-filled as Carlineo might have been, he had the choice to do anything but pick up the phone and threaten to “put a bullet in her fucking skull” — might such a person even want to make amends or do the work of self-reflection into his own hate and anger?

And yet, our country has frequently reacted with great vengeance towards crime, and this vengeance has frequently backfired in overly-punitive sentencing laws or mob violence; even in liberal California, the 1930s saw public lynchings in broad daylight in parks by a rage-filled mob (including former child star Jackie Coogan, who reportedly held the rope). In Omar, I see a politician with great influence reacting with even-handedness and thoughtfulness towards crime. Her actions make me think of all the politicians who gave into their baser urges, who pushed for mandatory minimum sentencing schemes that took discretion out of the hands of judges and filled our prisons with offenders who were often low-level, nonviolent, and very young. And Omar resisted this.

To me, this is integrity. This is a moment where Omar’s star rises, and she shows herself as someone who is not a gimmick, but a politician with backbone, with staying power, who is unafraid to take some hard positions. Yet, she should not distract from her call for mercy by shoehorning in the PR for restorative justice into her letter; she is propounding a conception of justice that might appeal to a huge swath of society to buy into should more politicians like Omar come to represent us in the future, and she should keep this appeal as open, as timeless and as personal as possible. There is a larger and more obtainable conception of justice at play here: a step back from the severity and harshness that marked prior reactions to crime, and one that is honest, genuine and eminently comprehensible.

The United States for many years has accepted successive waves of immigration, inhaling the diasporas of other cultures and, after a generation, has come to regard them as American as any other (similar could be said of many other New World countries like Canada, Brazil, Argentina). Omar’s acceptance of the American justice system and appeal to its values of mercy is the latest iteration of American assimilation. As a grandchild of immigrants myself, who is entering the professions central to the justice system, this process has already happened (or, is continuing to happen) to my own family. This is a commonality of the American experience, updated for 2019 but just as immediate and dynamic; as much as there is distrust and turmoil in American politics, this letter is a sign to me of stability, continuity, preservation, justice.