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So What Did We Learn?

Lessons from Rep. Peter King’s Muslim radicalization hearing

Well, the congressional hearing that everyone has been talking about for literally the past three months is over. Going just over four hours long, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Peter King’s (R-NY) hearing on “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response,” was highly charged, it was emotional, it was outright raw in a few places, very personal in others, and offered some pointed partisan shots at both sides of the political aisle – but in the end what did we learn?

Since announcing his intent to have these hearings following the 2010 elections that put the Republicans in charge of the U.S. House of Representatives, and King back in the chairman’s seat for the House Homeland Security Committee, there has been an onslaught of media coverage, as well as countless slings and arrows directed at King for even considering this topic. Despite the spite-filled criticism by some media outlets and Muslim activists, King chose not to bow to any type of political pressure or political correctness and ventured forward.

His opening statement was carefully crafted and was reminiscent of a high-wire performer at the circus who is doing his utmost to balance everything around him while members of the audience, friend and foe alike, are just waiting for him to make a misstep and go splat before all of the cameras and assembled crowd. King didn’t do that. He kept his eyes focused on the end of the wire and crossed without any major stumbles.

It’s not as if there weren’t congressional members of his committee that didn’t want to see him go splat. Representatives Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) and Jackie Speier (D-CA) probably offered the most caustic of comments during the hearing. Speier went so far as to declare three out of the four hearing witnesses’ testimony anecdotal and without expertise, and called the hearing “grossly incomplete” stating that without “representation of the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Department of Justice, we are seeing a very skewed discussion.”

Jackson Lee and Speier were not alone with their vocal displeasure with the hearings. Representatives Laura Richards (D-CA) and Al Green (D-TX) took some pretty good shots at King as well. They even made some good points, particularly Rep. Green’s comments about the Klu Klux Klan and its wicked history, but in the end all of their shots ended up falling short. King had a point to make and he was able to do it.

King wanted to attract attention to the indisputable fact that over the past several years our nation has encountered radicalized individuals who took a religion based upon precepts of peace and invoked it to wage war against the people and communities in which they resided. Fort Hood shooter U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan; Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad; would-be DC Metro (subway) bomber Farooque Ahmed, Little Rock Recruiting Center Shooter Carlos Bledsoe (his father, Melvin Bledsoe was a hearing witness), and “Jihad Jane” Colleen LaRose were just a few of the names and cases that were mentioned in the course of the hearing.

As uncomfortable as it may be to discuss how each of these individuals took a leap in their religion to want to kill people, those are the facts, and King wanted everyone to take note. It should be no surprise to anyone that King is no coddler to anything or anyone. He’s a quintessential New Yorker, and like most New Yorkers (I’m married to one), their patience for excuses on anything evaporates in less than a nanosecond.

For as quick as King’s critics are quick to label him “Joe McCarthy-esque” and on a witch-hunt, he was careful to note in his opening statement and in accompanying media interviews prior and post-hearing that the overwhelming majority of Muslim Americans are good, decent and law-abiding people. It was the same refrain repeated by nearly all of the attending Republican and Democratic members at the hearing. While there was no debate about that fact, (and it may have been the only thing that both sides of the aisle agreed upon) King used the power of his gavel to say, “Look at this! Pay attention! We have to look at this issue!”

By that metric King succeeded in spades. The media coverage his hearing generated eclipsed anything the House Committee on Homeland Security has done since it was created nearly a decade ago. That fact alone probably made the Salahis, the infamous White House party crashers, green with envy since they were the focus of the committee’s only other big media moment back in December 2009.

Practically every newspaper in America put King’s hearing on its front page. For the cable news channels this was a gold mine of opportunity for people on all sides of the issue to raise their voices, wag their fingers at one another and keep their viewers watching. Probably even more impressive is the fact that the hearing bumped Charlie Sheen and his on-going public meltdown to page two!

In the end though, there appears to be no legislation on the horizon from King or the Congress on this issue. There is no way to legislate people away from turning to hate, regardless of what God or religion people believe in. King’s challenge going forward is to show balance to the threats that face the homeland from all of those who believe God justifies their murderous acts. While it’s easy to make note of the actions of Jihad Jane, Faisal Shahzad, and Nidal Hasan, we must also note the Eric Rudolphs, Paul Hills, the Klu Klux Klan and white supremacist groups whose beliefs denote God’s justification for their murderous and hateful acts. Islam holds no monopoly on God being invoked in order to justify killing people. It’s something that has been fairly distributed around the world since people decided to worship a deity.

In going forward, King’s challenge, that of his committee’s membership, and the nation’s various religious communities, is to identify and address those elements that go from a civil and peaceful discourse to the extreme. It’s when we choose to ignore those threats that they are allowed to grow. There’s enough hate in the world without having to bring God into it, and as uncomfortable as the questions might be, questions and debate will always be better than ignorance and destruction.

I think God can live with that.


Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...