Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene Endorsed Conspiracy Theories About the Parkland Shooting. A Civics Teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas Turned It Into a Lesson

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

As GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s embrace of conspiracy theories that the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida was a contrived event generated national headlines Thursday and calls for her expulsion from Congress, an AP government teacher who lived through the violence did what he does best: Turn the moment into a learning opportunity.

Jeff Foster, who teaches at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people died in the 2018 shooting, frequently uses current events to teach teens about the importance of civic participation, a strategy that typically leads to lively debates. Even the Jan. 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol sparked disagreements between the politically engaged teens. But the conversation on Thursday was different: Everybody in the class agreed that the comments from Greene, a freshman congresswoman from Georgia, were reprehensible.

“Collectively, we all thought that she should be removed from every possible Congressional committee that she’s on” and forced to resign, Foster told The 74, adding that students demanded Republican leadership take action against one of the party’s newest members. “The main thing that we all said today was that it’s really incredible that the party hasn’t done anything about it yet.”

In fact, Greene was named to the House Education Committee this week by her GOP colleagues. Greene is also the first member of Congress to opening support QAnon, a fringe conspiracy theory group identified by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a domestic terrorism threat. On Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security published a terrorism advisory alert bulletin warning that “ideologically-motivated violent extremists” present a heightened threat across the U.S.

To 18-year-old Parkland student Ryan Servaites, Greene’s comments about his school and classmates were “abhorrent.”

“It hurts to see a sitting member of Congress talk about this thing that completely shifted our lives as if it’s some little crazy fantasy on a message board,” he said. “She’s not treating this issue with the gravity that it deserves and obviously she’s just outright disrespecting what we have gone through as a community.”

Over the last week, a barrage of Greene’s previous social media activities were surfaced online, including that the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was a “false flag” operation, a conspiracy theory that the deadly event was set up or made to look like it was carried out by somebody else. Students who survived the shooting and family members of the victims last week called on Greene to resign.

Many of Greene’s social media posts were resurfaced by Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog group. Before becoming a lawmaker, she also endorsed conspiracy theories that the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, were an inside job, and that the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, was staged. That shooting resulted in 26 fatalities, including 20 children.

Meanwhile, in a video taken just weeks after the Parkland shooting, Greene is seen harassing David Hogg, then a Parkland student who became a prominent voice in the March For Our Lives movement calling for heightened firearm laws. Greene, who has previously called Hogg “#littleHitler,” called the teen “a coward.” Greene has also used social media in 2018 and 2019 to support violence against Democratic lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former President Barack Obama. Her office didn’t respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Greene’s comments prompted a swift uproar among Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, who Thursday called on Republican leadership to backtrack on the decision to put her on the House Education and Labor Committee.

While committee members are “supposed to reflect their commitment to serving students, parents and educators,” Greene “chased and berated a 17-year-old survivor of a mass school shooting, then celebrated this behavior by posting it on social media,” Scott said in a media release. “Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy must explain how someone with this background represents the Republican party on education issues. He is sending a clear message to students, parents and educators about the views of the Republican party.”

During a press conference on Thursday, Pelosi criticized Greene for “mocking the killing of little children at Sandy Hook,” and said her appointment to the education committee is “beyond the pale.”

Ryan Servaites

Conspiracy theorists have been spouting disinformation about the Parkland and Sandy Hook attacks for years now, but for Servaites, the student in Foster’s AP Government class, it’s particularly galling for the words to come from a member of Congress.

“It isn’t just some random person on the internet saying that what happened to us didn’t happen,” said Servaites, who plans on studying political science in college. “Now, this is a sitting member of Congress who is essentially lying about what we had gone through and basically claiming that our experiences are not valid.”

Though political discussions in Foster’s class can get heated at times, Servaites said the consensus on Thursday highlighted the extreme nature of Greene’s remarks.

“There are kids in there who I don’t agree with on anything, but we all came together on this and said ‘This is ridiculous,’” he said. But he said a lack of urgency on the matter from Republican party leaders was the hardest pill to swallow. “For someone to say something like that and then to not be met with any form of repercussion, you know, it’s something that’s completely mind-blowing.”

After Greene’s comments surfaced, McCarthy called her actions “deeply disturbing” and promised to have a “conversation” with her, though he didn’t say whether she would be punished.

During an interview with CNN on Thursday, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, called Greene a “RINO” — a “Republian in name only” — and said it was important to speak out against those who embrace conspiracy theories and “defend the integrity of the party.”

“The education committee, first off, it’s not considered a good committee to get on, but I don’t think that she should have the privilege of any committees, especially when you see the things that are coming out, the embracing of conspiracy theories,” that have led to real-world violence, he said. “We all know friends that have kind of lost a sense of reality because they’ve been pulled into this dark underworld of conspiracies and that’s where it is incumbent on leaders and everybody, frankly, to expose that darkness, to bring light to darkness, to begin to disinfect that.”

Though he wasn’t speaking about Greene in particular, an expert in online extremism recently told The 74 he was concerned about the degree to which some Republicans have ascribed to conspiracy theories. When people embrace propaganda and disinformation, it presents a “vulnerability that extremist groups can then come in and exploit,” said Brian Hughes, the associate director of the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab at American University.

“What distinguishes a potential victim who is on the cusp of radicalization from a potential perpetrator is this decision, this shift to believing that a violent solution is what needs to be done,” he said. By definition, extremism is “a belief that there’s an in-group and an out-group, and the only way for the in-group to deal with the out-group is either through forced separation or violent suppression.”

Carolyn Gallaher, the senior associate dean at American University’s School of International Service and an expert in far-right extremism, said Greene’s ideology fits the definition of far-right extremism, citing her comments related to QAnon, which holds that former President Donald Trump was battling a Satanic cabal of Democrats and celebrities engaged in pedophilia; her use of “anti-Semitic tropes” and her embrace of violence against political adversaries.

“I don’t think there’s any evidence that Marjorie Taylor Greene has her own militia force or that she herself is going to attack someone on the floor of the House of Representatives, but her microphone to spread conspiracy theories is troubling,” she said. “The threat that Marjorie Taylor Greene represents is that she’s going to use her various bully pulpits on social media and in Congress to continue to spread conspiracy theories and to rile people up.”

Reached by phone on Thursday, Ivy Schamis, a former Parkland history teacher now living in Washington, D.C., was furious. Schamis was giving a lesson on the Holocaust — and how to counter hate — when a gunman stormed into her classroom and killed two of her students. Greene’s use of propaganda, Schamis quipped, is “right from Hitler’s playbook.”

“If you say things enough, people will start to believe it,” said Schamis, who said she left South Florida partly because of the conspiracy theorists who flocked there. “Now with social media, it is so easy. It is so easy to put out there whatever you feel like putting out.”

Schamis also said Greene should resign or be removed from office, noting that she taught her students in Parkland to be “upstanders” like those who actively fought against the Nazi regime during the Holocaust. In response to Greene, it’s the Republican leadership and voters who now need to become upstanders, she said.

“Being a bystander and being silent is not going to accomplish anything,” she said. “Just like I tell my students, the opposite of love is not hate — it’s indifference.”

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