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Wall Street Journal: The Homegrown Terror Hearings; Americans deserve a calm, honest appraisal of the threat

Wall Street Journal
March 10, 2011

Congressional hearings on the Islamist terror threat inside the U.S. begin today, and our friends on the left are busy portraying them as the McCarthy hearings and Palmer Raids rolled into one. What a pity. Terrorism experts have been warning for years that future attacks will be largely homegrown, and Americans are entitled to an assessment of how serious a threat this is.

Whether that's what we'll get today remains to be seen: The witnesses called by Representative Peter King's Committee on Homeland Security include Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison, the first Muslim-American Member of Congress; L.A. Sheriff Leroy Baca; and Melvin Bledsoe, an American whose son, Carlos, converted to Islam and murdered a soldier at a recruiting station in Arkansas in June 2009. None of these witnesses is incendiary, and the hearings are not an exercise in naming names.

What they can be is an opportunity for some honesty. Since 9/11, there have been more than 50 known cases, involving about 130 individuals, in which terrorist plots were hatched on American soil. These include plots to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, an office tower in Dallas, a federal court house in Illinois, the Washington, D.C. metro, and the trans-Alaska pipeline. Most of these schemes were foiled at an early stage, though the Times Square bomber failed only at the moment of ignition. The worst attack was Major Nidal Hasan's November 2009 murder of 13 soldiers at Fort Hood.

In a useful report published by the Rand Corporation last year, terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins notes that the plotters were a "diverse group" that included Caucasians, African-Americans and Hispanics as well as immigrants (or their children) from about 20 countries. Yet all but two of the plotters were Muslim, and those two sought to offer their services to al Qaeda.

So much, then, for the notion that it is bigoted for Mr. King to focus on Muslim radicalization. This is where the current threat lies. As Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough pointed out in a speech last week, al Qaeda operatives "make videos, create Internet forums, even publish online magazines, all for the express purpose of trying to convince Muslim-Americans to reject their country and attack their fellow Americans."

Nor is it invidious to examine how Muslim-American communities have responded to radical Islamists in their midst. In this battle, they are the nation's first line of defense, and Americans ought to know how the line can be strengthened. In 2007, the Los Angeles Times reported that "few if any of the arrests [in cases of homegrown terrorism] resulted from a private citizen reporting suspicious activity," and recent terrorist cases seem to have been brought about as the result of tips from paid informers and sting operations. That approach has largely succeeded.

But as Mr. Jenkins notes, "relatives and friends are often more likely than the authorities to know when someone is turning dangerously radical and heading toward self-destruction." We think most Muslim-Americans would agree that community vigilance is preferable to constant police surveillance.

The real catastrophe for Muslim Americans would be homegrown attacks that could be exploited by those, especially some on the American right, who claim that Islam is itself inherently violent. Or that all Muslim immigration must be stopped. Done right, Mr. King's hearings can dispel much populist misinformation.

The reality is that jihadism in the U.S. remains extremely rare in a Muslim-American community of some three million. Facing up to its threat without politically correct obfuscations is a government duty. So, too, is respect for notions of tolerance and fair play that have allowed people of all faiths, Muslims not least, to flourish in America.