A balancing act for Peter King
February 27, 2011
The prospect of terrorists living among us is one of the most frightening legacies of 9/11. It's a chilling reminder that vigilance in the fight against terrorism is essential.
But indiscriminate suspicion of every Muslim who calls the United States home won't make us safer. It risks alienating Muslims, offending people of all faiths and discouraging cooperation by the tiny fraction of the Muslim population who know something that might help the authorities combat homegrown extremism.
The challenge is to isolate and root out those who would do us harm, without demonizing an entire faith.
That's the difficult line Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, must walk when he opens a hearing March 10 on the "radicalization of the American Muslim community and homegrown terrorism." The stakes are high, for the nation and for King.
Handled astutely, the hearing could help us understand how ordinary people cross the line into politically motivated violence, and what characterizes those susceptible to indoctrination by extremists. It could also promote cooperation between Muslims and police and encourage Muslim communities to isolate dangerous radicals.
But if mishandled, the hearing could descend into polarizing rhetoric, undermine what trust there is between Muslims and police and poison the public's perception of Muslims and Muslims' perceptions of America.
And if King allows his hearing to become a broadside against Islam, he risks offending people of all faiths, liberal and conservative. One key is to avoid antagonistic generalizations, such as his past assertion that 85 percent of the mosques in this country have extremist leadership.
It's important that King and his colleagues rise to the occasion because, while it shouldn't be overstated, recent history makes it clear the threat of homegrown terrorism is real.
There have been too many incidents like the one last May when Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan, attempted to detonate a car full of explosives in Times Square. Or 2009, when Nidal Hasan, a Virginia-born Muslim and military psychiatrist, shot and killed 13 people and wounded 30 at the Fort Hood
Army base. As far back as 2002 the "Lackawanna Six," Yemeni-Americans in upstate New York who were arrested after attending an al-Qaida camp, raised the specter of terrorist sleeper cells in the United States.
Whether there is an extremist hierarchy or network in the United States at work radicalizing people is a legitimate question for Congress to explore. But the nation's decade-long campaign against terrorism has apparently eroded the ability of organizations such as al-Qaida to mount terrorist attacks here. By most accounts they've shifted from organizing to inspiring would-be terrorists. Inspire is, after all, the name of the organization's online magazine.
The most worrisome scenario today is an aggrieved loner radicalized through extremist websites and social networks available to anyone - people like the Saudi national arrested last week in Texas after assembling explosives and apparently picking targets for terrorism, including sites in New York City.
The focus of the hearing should be narrowed from the sweeping subject of the radicalization of the Muslim American community - which presumes from the start that diverse Muslim communities of millions of people have been radicalized. Something along the lines of isolating proselytizing extremists and identifying and stopping individuals dangerously susceptible to their rants, might be more useful.
King should make sure Muslims and others who testify actually speak for the communities they say they represent. The invitation to Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a Muslim member of Congress, is a good start.
So is hearing from Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who has credited Muslims for helping with investigations. But King insists that some law enforcement officials say that publicly, but whisper privately that it just isn't so. He should make sure those whisperers testify on such concerns publicly.
Without truth, there won't be trust. And without trust, there won't be cooperation between police and Muslims. And that would deprive law enforcement of the best possible source of information about people on the path from espousing strong political views to plotting violence and setting terrorist plots into motion. Who would know better than those extremists' friends and family?
But there are good reasons for Muslims to fear talking to police. Concerns about entrapment, infiltration by undercover provocateurs and the fear that if they share suspicions with police, they could ruin the lives of innocent people. King's committee should explore those concerns and how they can be addressed without compromising the work of law enforcement.
This must be a hearing about the demon that is terrorism, not the demonization of Muslims.