In Ilhan Omar’s Somalia

PARIS - Ilhan Omar might have been one of those hollow-eyed Somali kids at the edge of survival I saw back in the early 1990s, covering humanity's ugly underside for the Associated Press.

The world had ignored foreseeable famine. A warlord despot battled with murderous rivals, all demanding chunks of whatever was left to plunder. Heading inland from Mogadishu, I wrote:

“On the blacktop road to Baidoa, a sunbaked corpse lies in the center, the chest emptied by vultures. It might have been a bullet, a bus or hunger. In Somalia, no one stops to find out.

“Scores of thousands have died this year, another 2,000 with every sunrise. A million may follow. But beyond the numbing statistics, the impact comes one death at a time.

“In Baidoa, Amina Sheikh Mohammed, a nurse, stood in the yard of a feeding center and told a visitor that six children had died that day. A man spoke softly in her ear, and her face clouded.

“'Make that seven,' she said.”

Omar was born in 1982, the youngest of seven siblings. When she was two, her mother died. After her father, a teacher, saw Somalia falling apart beyond repair, he led the kids on a harrowing trek to spend four years in Dadaab, a hellhole refugee camp in Kenya.

The family made it to New York in 1992 and sought asylum, the way my father's family escaped Russian mayhem in 1921. Omar became a U.S. citizen in 2000, at 17, six years before Melania Trump.

Decent Minnesotans put her in the state legislature. Hijab notwithstanding, she won 78 percent of the vote. After a single term of watching her in action, they sent her to Congress.

It is not likely Ilhan Omar hates her new homeland. And it is no surprise that she reviles Trump, who evokes the sort of ruthless demagogy and blind greed that pushed Somalia into a “shithole.”

No one still reading this needs a recap of Trump's cynical jihad against Omar. Yet a close look at how he distorts her words and twists their context shows depraved indifference to truth.

By his criteria, those who cross him don't “love” America and should leave. That includes three other off-white congresswomen who, like Springsteen and a lot of us, were born in the USA.

Unlike most legislators, Omar has learned world reality the hard way, and she says what she sees. She is no more anti-Semitic than Jews who believe Trump's policy threatens Israel's survival.

Israel is a democracy, not a Jewish Vatican. Treating Bibi Netanyahu as a pope stirs global anti-Semitism to an alarming degree. Lots of Israelis want peace with a separate Palestine.

That “Benjamins” remark was slang for the $100 bills that feed an active lobby, with a play on Netanyahu's name. Omar apologized when she realized how it might be misconstrued.

Her use of the word “evil” was directed at overkill response in Gaza and the West Bank. Facts are facts. She applies the same word to Muslim terrorists who pervert Mohammed's teachings.

Omar helps openminded Americans understand how their own foreign policy plays a role in global terrorism, which is essentially an extreme response to perceived injustice.

“No one wants to face how their actions…would have contributed to the rise of terrorism,” she said in a thoughtful interview in 2013 after Al-Shabaab attacked a Nairobi mall.

Societies can't be defined by the actions of an unelected few, she said. But in America, a homegrown Christian terrorist is seen as an isolated psychopath. If the perpetrator is Muslim, most people hold all of Islam to account.

This swells terrorist ranks. Frustrated young people react to what they see as unjust American policy and misguided military intervention. Arguing changed nothing. It's their reality, not ours.

Somalia is a telling case.

In 1981, I covered famine after old enmity flared into war on the Ethi0pian border. Mogadishu, in contrast, was a placid ex-colonial Italian style city with memorable pasta, parks and beaches where the only worry was great white sharks.

People like Omar's grandfather pushed for democracy and education for women. He was director of National Marine Transport before fishermen-turned-pirates ruled the waves.

Diplomacy and aid might have helped Somalia thrive, but the outside world waited until it was too late to save. My trip in 1992 showed the futility of making peace at gunpoint.

U.S. troops landed in what we called the Frankie Avalon Beach Party. After Pentagon briefers eager for publicity tipped off news editors, generals howled when TV lights lit up commandos sneaking ashore at night. They needn't have worried. Ragtag militias had no desire to confront them head on.

The next morning, I followed a Marine foot patrol from Mogadishu port, bruisers in body armor with heavy weapons. Within an hour, kids dashed out to steal stuff off their packs.

Those kids saw quickly that tough Marines were like ripped weightlifters made impotent by too many steroids. Unless they were willing to gun down civilians, they were all show.

A year later, Somalis shot down a Black Hawk helicopter and dragged a dead crewman through the streets. Bill Clinton pulled out the troops. Then, fearing another debacle, he abandoned Rwanda to the genocide that killed 800,000 people.

As Somalia deteriorated, Washington backed Ethiopian troops, historic foes, to keep order. Al-Shabaab formed to resist them. Today, appropriating the name of Allah, it terrorizes Kenya.

Politics are personal. The Squad unnerves people resistant to change. A lot of others favor exotic spice in the melting pot and would rather see Trump “go back” if he is unhappy with America.

But everyone faces the same looming global calamities. To do the right thing, we need firsthand witnesses like Ilhan Omar to help us see what that is.