Published March 10, 2011
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. , is seen a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009. (AP)
Rep. Peter King clashed with other lawmakers on Capitol Hill Thursday over his high-profile inquiry on Islamic radicalization, with one Democrat accusing King of “scapegoating” and King accusing his critics of spreading “rage and hysteria.”
As the hearing got underway, King vowed to press ahead and said this would be just the first in a series of hearings on homegrown terror. The New York Republican, in his opening statement, cited recent terror plots against the United States in defending his decision. He suggested the hearings could help fulfill the committee’s duty to “protect America from a terrorist attack” by examining the root of recent plots.
“This committee cannot live in denial,” King said, accusing critics of trying to “dilute” the focus by turning attention to groups other than Al Qaeda.
“Only Al Qaeda and its Islamist affiliates in this country are part of an international threat to our nation,” King said.
The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee said the hearing “must go forward, and they will.” He said backing down would amount to a “craven surrender to political correctness.”
But Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who is Muslim, warned that the hearing could unfairly increase suspicion of Muslim Americans by lumping them together with violent extremists.
“When you assign their violent action to the entire community, you assign collective blame to a whole group,” Ellison said. “This is the very heart of stereotyping and scapegoating.”
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., ranking Democrat on the committee, warned that extremists could exploit the hearing and use it as “propaganda” to inspire a “new generation of suicide bombers.”
King has had around-the-clock security as he pushes forward with the hearing. But a new Gallup poll shows a majority of Americans support King’s plans.
The New York Republican will have extra security Thursday from Capitol Police who are securing the congressional hearing room and surrounding areas, as well as his office.
That’s on top of a larger security detail provided by the New York Police Department and the Nassau County, N.Y., police, who have been guarding King for the past few months.
But a new Gallup poll shows that 52 percent of Americans say these hearings are appropriate, though support is split among party lines.
Sixty-nine percent of Republicans say the hearings are the right thing, while only 40 percent of Democrats say they are appropriate. Independents’ views track closely to the national average at 51 percent supporting the hearings. Overall, 49 percent of Democrats polled on Tuesday say the hearings are not appropriate, compared to 42 percent of independents and 23 percent of Republicans.
Rarely does a congressional hearing attract as much advance controversy. Through the years, former Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., held four hearings on extremism while serving as an intelligence subcommittee chairwoman; and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., held several more as head of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. King’s hearings have been labeled McCarthy-like for targeting Muslims specifically.
Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and the first witness at Thursday’s hearing, told Fox News that he thinks King is getting flak because he’s willing to look for a Muslim solution.
“All of a sudden, this becomes politically incorrect and they start attacking the messenger, Congressman King, they start attacking me and others rather than dealing with the hard medicine, the hard treatment of saying, ‘You know what? The majority of Muslims want to fix the problem but we have to figure out those that are feeding the problem, how to reform and bring them into modernity.'”
Jasser added that some misguided imams are conditioning Muslims to distrust the U.S. government and as a result of political correctness, the nation is failing to prevent homegrown terror.
“We’ve had more radicalization and homegrown terror in the past 18 to 24 months than ever before. And it’s a problem that we need to take ownership of. It doesn’t mean the majority of Muslims are radicalized. In fact, there are many Muslims who are heroes that have turned
them in but we’ve just been focusing on that last step,” he said.
“My message is we need to focus on the years before they become violent, on the ideology that feeds that and there’s a conditioning, there’s a separatism and ideology of political Islam that needs reform to bring Muslim youth back into feeling this country is theirs,” Jasser said.
In his opening statement, King said he is “well aware” that the hearings have generated “considerable controversy and opposition” but he’s not talking about anything different than the Obama administration is considering. He said the congressional inquiry is the “logical response” to the warnings coming out of the Obama administration.
The Obama administration has tried to frame the discussion around radicalization in general, without singling out Muslims. King has said that’s just political correctness since Al Qaeda is the main threat to the U.S.
Despite the protests, there’s nothing in the prepared testimony that indiscriminately labels Muslims as terrorists, as critics had feared.
Melvin Bledsoe, whose son allegedly attacked an Army recruiting center in Arkansas, said in written testimony obtained by Fox News that Americans are ignoring the issue. He plans to describe how his son, Carlos, was radicalized when he went off to college in Nashville, Tenn. In his testimony, Bledsoe will explain how his son’s personality changed and how, when he returned home for the holidays in 2005, he told his family he converted to Islam. From that point, he changed his name and eventually traveled to Yemen.
“Some Muslim leaders had taken advantage of my son. But he’s not the only one being taken advantage of. This is going on in Nashville and in many other cities in America,” Bledsoe plans to say. “In Nashville, Carlos was captured by people best described as hunters. He was manipulated and lied to. That’s how he made his way to Yemen.”
Elsewhere at the Capitol, National Intelligence Director James Clapper was scheduled to address the threat of homegrown terrorism. In his prepared remarks, Clapper said 2010 saw more plots involving homegrown Sunni extremists — those ideologically aligned with Al Qaeda — than in the previous year.
“Key to this trend has been the development of a U.S.-specific narrative that motivates individuals to violence,” Clapper said.