The Radicals in Congress

Part I: Rep. Peter King Finds a Target

It is just about certain that the new Republican House will hold hearings on the “radicalization of the American Muslim Community.” The hearings will be called by Peter King, the Republican representative for New York’s third district, who is now the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.

This move on the part of Representative King will reveal more about him than it will about American Muslims. Why so? Because King’s publicly expressed prejudices will shape the hearings he will hold, thereby giving us an accurate view of where he is coming from; simultaneously, they will only supply an inaccurate and skewed view of American Muslims.

To date, what do King’s public positions look like? Here are some examples:

1. King has publicly asserted, without evidence, that most of the leaders and organizations of the American Muslim Community are dangerous radicals. They are to be judged so because, allegedly, they are purveyors of “radical Islam.” He has made the accusation that, “80 to 85 percent of the mosques in this country are controlled by Islamic fundamentalists,” conflating radicals and fundamentalists. He has even written a novel, “Vale of Tears,” about Muslims plotting against the United States.

2. He has asserted that mainstream American Muslims and their leaders and organizations have “not come forward and denounce[d], officially denounce[d], officially cooperate[d] with police against extremists and terrorists.” This accusation happens to be demonstrably false. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), who is the first Muslim-American elected to the House, has spent a good bit of time documenting the efforts of Muslim-Americans to do just what King says they don’t do. Among other things, Ellison points out that “about one-third of all foiled al-Qaeda-related plots in the US relied on support and information provided by members of the Muslim community.” A recent attempt at such terrorism, the placing of a car bomb in Times Square, was foiled by a Senegalese Muslim immigrant.

3. When King is asked about his sources of information on American Muslims, he names Steve Emerson and Daniel Pipes. Emerson is one of those journalists turned self-proclaimed “experts” on security matters. He has written a number of books on “radical Islam,” which, in turn, have been criticized by real Middle East experts. Pipes is a devotee of Israel and rarely deviates from a right-wing Zionist line. Both men have been described as aggressive enemies of Muslims and Islam. It is to these sorts of people that King looks to confirm his own biases. No wonder King now regards American Muslim leaders as “an enemy living amongst us.”

4. Just to round out this picture, we can add that, quickly after 9/11, King became a staunch supporter of the invasion of Iraq. Having taken this stand, he never addressed the fact that Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, nor has he ever publicly considered the fact that American foreign policy in the Middle East did have a lot to do with that event. He was a strong defender of George W. Bush’s policy of torture, claiming that Bush should be given a medal for authorizing waterboarding. He supports a strict application of the USA Patriot Act. He says that Guantanamo Bay prison should not be closed, and the proposed mosque near ground zero should not be opened. And, finally, he thinks that WikiLeaks should be treated as a terrorist organization.

Given all of this, the pending House hearings on American Muslims may well resemble a staged show trial. The witnesses will probably be selected to affirm the position King has already proclaimed to be true. The hearings might make national headlines and serve to scare millions of innocent people and contribute to the country’s already growing anti-Muslim hysteria. We may see a spike in the number of hate crimes against Muslims. It is likely that the whole thing will amount to the public dispersion of what The New York Times calls King’s “sweeping slur on Muslim citizens.”

Part II: Just Who Is Radical?

This approaching attempt to defame an entire sub-group of citizens leads us to ask, just who are the real radical Americans? Perhaps it is not the American Muslim community that harbors growing numbers of people threatening the core principles of our country. Perhaps such threats can more readily be found in certain dark corners of the hearing rooms of the House of Representatives. If we take constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties (that is, the Bill of Rights) to be among the core pillars of the American way of life, then how should we judge King’s intent and actions? Are they radical or not? And if they are, then we should all join with those American Muslims who are raising their voices against King and his machinations.

The truth is that King is representative of a cyclically recurring American phenomenon. Throughout US history, the population has periodically indulged in episodes of self-abuse. The abuse usually entails one group of citizens attacking another with the charge that the latter are undermining American security and values. These outbursts are usually triggered by war or some imagined foreign threat. One of the more interesting aspects of these episodes is their contradictory nature, for it is the very attacks in the name of national values that systematically undermine American core principles by violating the legal rights of those subject to attack. These episodes, just a few historical examples of which are given below, occur with something approaching regularity, about once every other generation. King is a typical leader in the most recent of these eruptions.

The episodes began as early as 1798, with the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts, which had certain parallels with the USA Patriot Act rushed through Congress in October 2001. During the Civil War and World War I, similar legislation was passed in order to silence dissent. Then came the Red Scares of the 1920’s, which began the infamous career of J. Edgar Hoover. It was immigrants allegedly tainted with the ideology of communism and anarchism that were targeted at that time. A second Red Scare occurred in the 1950’s with the McCarthy hearings. In these and other episodes, the targets varied but the emotionally charged belief in hidden dangers was a constant. The historian Richard Hofstadter referred to this behavior as the “paranoid style in American politics.”

It is into this pattern of historical behavior that we can fit King and his upcoming hearings. He imagines a conspiracy of radical Muslims plotting to ruin the nation. He is sure they are out there hiding in a specified immigrant population and, one way or another, he is going to find them. Just as in previous historical cases, there is another element of the population that believes in the conspiracy theory of the moment. It will rally around King, urge him on and help re-elect him for his efforts. It is an old story, and the only reason that the Bill of Rights retains any meaning at all is because, with each episode of this cyclical paranoia, some citizens have fought back to protect their rights.

History suggests that King is not an exceptional fellow. There are millions of copies of his sort out there, and they can all be judged as “radicals” due to their disregard for the civil liberties that help define the American way of life. Our problem is that these copies keep placing examples of themselves – such as King – in positions of power. That puts the rest of us, those true Americans who take the Bill of Rights seriously, at serious risk – yet once more.