Himes discusses Ferguson protests, Iraq air strikes at community coffee

Speaking to constituents in Darien, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes discussed his feelings on the Ferguson protests and the ISIS terrorist group in Iraq. — Ken Borsuk

Speaking to constituents in Darien, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes discussed his feelings on the Ferguson protests and the ISIS terrorist group in Iraq. — Ken Borsuk

As U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-4th) continued his tour through the district, national and international issues were on the minds of his constituents on Thursday.

Mr. Himes, a Cos Cob resident, was a guest at the weekly coffee held by the Darien Times, a sister paper to the Post, for members of the community to meet with the paper’s staff. At the coffee, Mr. Himes spoke about several local issues with Darien residents but also spoke about the broader stories dominating the headlines. Mr. Himes’ appearance came two days after the execution of James Foley, an American citizen and reporter who had been kidnapped in Syria and was allegedly murdered by members of the terrorist group ISIS.

The video of the execution claimed that it was done in retaliation for airstrikes the United States has been taking against ISIS positions in Iraq. This week President Barack Obama condemned the act as “a cowardly act of violence” and again spoke out against ISIS, which is continuing a violent campaign in the Middle East that has seen it gain power in several places of Iraq.

The murder of Mr. Foley as well as claims from ISIS that is has another American citizen held hostage have left some wondering if the United States was on the verge of recommitting ground troops to Iraq. Mr. Obama has ordered airstrikes against ISIS to boost Iraqi leadership in there fight with the terrorist group but has so far said no ground troops will be sent. However, in the aftermath of continued aggression from ISIS people are speculating about what is known as “mission creep” where slowly more and more commitments are made leading to a full blown deployment of troops.

“We’ve got to guard against that,” Mr. Himes said. “We have to, at all costs, avoid getting caught up on anybody’s team over there. In Iraq in particular you’ve got the Sunnis, you’ve got the Shiites and you’ve got the Kurds. We’ve got to make sure we’re not caught up on anyone’s team. We want to work with Europe and others to see if this new prime minister will bring the country together. And the answer to that question may be no. Iraq may not be a country that survives. But working with others in a non-military way to try and stabilize that country is one thing but we should not serve as the Sunnis military arm.”

Mr. Himes did make the distinction, though, that when it comes to terrorist groups like ISIS, “where we can get a clean shot against a leader we should take it.” Mr. Himes is a member of the Intelligence Committee in Congress and receives briefings about anti-terrorist operations from the White House and the CIA. While he stressed that he is not part of the decision making progress when it comes to those kinds of operations, Mr. Himes spoke about why he thought they could be effective if done right.

“The lesson of the last 10 years if you look at Iraq, if you look at Afghanistan and if you look at Libya is we are superb at going after people and breaking regimes,” Mr. Himes said. “We can do it overnight. It’s the next day that we’re not good at. When it comes to finding a concentration of terrorists in some desert and ending them we can do that and we should. But we’ve got to be careful about that. You don’t want to kill their innocent brothers.”

Mr. Himes said he was a “strong no” when asked about whether he favored a “boots on the ground military commitment” but said he was in favor of the airstrikes on ISIS. He added that he believed there wasn’t an “appetite” in Congress in either party for sending troops back to Iraq.

Mr. Himes also spoke about the major national news story of this week as he turned his attention toward Ferguson, Mo. which has seen a week of unrest following the police shooting of an unarmed black man named Michael Brown. The killing has spurred debate about the use of military grade weapons by police departments as well as tactics toward protesters and the role of race in police response.

When the discussion turned to this topic, Mr. Himes said it was important to “step back from the day’s headlines” and not rush to make massive changes without study first. But he was very clear that he considered what was happening there a “catastrophe.”

“Ferguson is a massive failure of leadership on the part of the political leadership there,” Mr. Himes said. “You had a community that was agitated, angry and was emotional and the police responded essentially with the military. That made things worse, not better. That said, let’s not change our policies overnight.”

Mr. Himes gave the hypothetical situation of a sniper on top of a building shooting people as they walked by on the street or a hostage situation in a bank. He said that he wanted police to have the ability to bring in an armored vehicle as part of the response. He granted that the occasions where something like that were rare but he wanted the ability for a police department to respond if needed.

But Mr. Himes said there was a broader issue in Ferguson where he said the police and government had failed to understand why the community was so angry by the shooting.

“One indisputable fact in the United States of America today, and there’s no argument about this, is that the judicial system, from stop and frisk to who gets arrested to what crimes they get charged with to how long they get sentenced to all the way to the application of the death penalty is dramatically discriminatory against our African American population,” Mr. Himes said. “There’s no argument about that. National data shows that if you’re an 18-year-old African American man arrested with marijuana in your pocket versus a white 18-year-old with marijuana in your pocket you’re treated totally different by the judicial system. The African American community in Ferguson knew that.”

Mr. Himes said the response of “white guys in fatigues and sniper rifles” as opposed to explaining what was happening in the case and why had only inflamed the situation. He added that the police tactics of arresting journalists for doing nothing more than charging their phones in McDonalds in Ferguson was unacceptable. When challenged on that, Mr. Himes urged the people at the coffee to put themselves in the shoes of those in Ferguson.

“Imagine it was your kid,” Mr. Himes said. “I know it’s hard to imagine in Darien but imagine your kid is protesting something and there’s a guy with fatigues and a scope pointing a rifle at your kid’s chest. I’d go bananas and I’m a pretty calm guy.”

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