On Monday, Daniel Foster wrote a hysterical, over-the-top piece about a statement made by my colleague, Representative Steve King, in Russia about the punishment of an obscene Russian punk rock group. The piece says King claimed the music group “Pussy Riot” had desecrated the sacred altar of a Russian church, and then took exception to King’s statement that he found it “hard to find sympathize” with the musicians. Mr. Foster suggested King’s words reflected a “casualness about the criminalization of political dissent,” and proceeded to call his words “un-American.” There is nothing off-base about my colleague’s statements, and Mr. Foster should reconsider his over-the-top rhetoric.
It’s intellectually dishonest for Mr. Foster to paraphrase King’s statement and then argue his words were “ill-informed.” If he’s going to argue the point, he needs to do so with the words King actually said. King did not say Pussy Riot vandalized or defiled the altar of the Church, he said they desecrated it, which is an undeniable fact. Merriam-Webster defines “desecrate” as “to violate the sanctity of, or to treat disrespectfully, irreverently, or outrageously.” The group snuck its way onto the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior without permission and performed a punk rock song with vulgar lyrics. Their stunt was disrespectful and completely irreverent. The facts speak for themselves, and Steve King is right.
Mr. Foster then suggests King’s statement that he found it “hard to sympathize” with the group reflects a “casualness about the criminalization of political dissent.” It can sometimes be difficult to identify cheap stunts involving vulgarity for the sake of notoriety and legitimate, political dissent. There is a distinction between a group engaged in outrageous acts for the sake of notoriety and those engaged in political speech. This group’s activities certainly appear to fall in the former category. The “band,” along with an overlapping, related group, had spent the preceding years going around Russia performing lewd acts and spectacles with little discernible political content. Most notably, they performed a public orgy at a Moscow museum, performed sex acts with a frozen chicken in a Russian supermarket, set fire to a police car, attempted to incite a riot, and drew obscene images on a bridge in St. Petersburg. Far from King’s comments being “ill-informed,” it is understandable that the more “informed” one becomes of Pussy Riot’s activities, the harder it is to muster up sympathy for the group. Furthermore, I happen to know that these facts were well known to King before he set foot in Russia, so if Mr. Foster is suggesting that he may have been swayed by Russian propaganda, I can attest that that is entirely unfounded.
In America, many of Pussy Riot’s actions would be illegal, despite America’s revered First Amendment protections, which is another reason why Mr. Foster’s criticisms are so off-base. For example, bestiality is an aggravated misdemeanor punishable by up to two years in prison. Indecent exposure is a serious misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison. First-degree criminal mischief can be a Class C felony punishable by up to ten years in prison. Disorderly conduct and trespassing are simple misdemeanors punishable by up to 30 days in jail. And rioting itself is an aggravated misdemeanor punishable by up to two years in prison.
We can lament any crackdown on political dissent without romanticizing the actions of the oppressed. Feeling unsympathetic toward a group that engaged in the distasteful, criminal activities like this one did, is not unreasonable. I, along with my colleague King, have long been outspoken advocates against political oppression in all its forms. I’d say our sympathy is better placed with someone like Chen Guangcheng, the admirable and courageous Chinese dissident who was persecuted for opposing China’s one-child policy and whom we met here in the Capitol last August. Chen’s advocacy was aggressive but never distasteful, or criminal. He has earned admiration, and it is easy to find sympathy for the oppression he faced in the course of his life.
Neither I nor King has ever said we support the manner of Russia’s crackdown on Pussy Riot, but the degree to which you find it easy to feel sympathy for anyone is just that: a matter of degree, and it is easier to find sympathy with some than others. To read too much into that, as Mr. Foster did with King’s statements, and make broader accusations questioning others’ commitment to fighting for basic human rights is beyond the pale.
— Representative Dana Rohrabacher is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats.