The Republican members of the House Homeland Security Committee were eager to make yesterday's hearing on Muslim American "radicalization" a civil affair, at least in tone. Most Republicans in the packed room were exceedingly polite, even deferential, to those concerned that New York Rep. Peter King has launched a witch hunt. All were careful to make clear that they weren't anti-Muslim. "Most Muslims are good people," was a common refrain.
After months of criticism about the content and substance of what will be a series of hearings on Muslim Americans and terrorism, it was clearly in King's interest to keep the affair as calm and respectful as possible. While talking to the press after the meeting, King patted himself on the back, calling the day a "success," and admonished reporters and critics. "The hysteria and madness leading up to this did nobody much good," King insisted.
But Laura Murphy, head of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union, says the tone of the day "is beside the point," and that King actually "reduced some of his incendiary rhetoric for the hearing, as a result of groups protesting the way the issue was framed." Adam Serwer, writing at The Washington Post, concurs: "If outside groups hadn't been so critical of King and Republicans to begin with, it might not have played out that way."
Democrats were less invested in civility. The biggest push back from Democrats over the course of the day lingered on one question: Why hold hearings about Muslim radicalization while ignoring other kinds of radicalization, like white supremacy or environmental extremism?
Brooklyn Democrat Yvette Clarke called the entire meeting "great congressional theater, certainly the equivalent of reality TV." Clarke said she was "appalled" at the vague of definition of terrorism and radicalization in the hearings. "I have parents in my district who can sit and talk about their children being recruited, their children being brainwashed. Their children are gang members." She added that this kind of radicalization hasn't been a priority of Homeland Security.
Texas Democrat Al Green pointed out that "the KKK requires its members profess a belief in Jesus Christ," and asked why there weren't hearings for white Christian males (he quickly added that he's glad there aren't). "It doesn't look right when we focus on one religion and exclude others," he said.
This sentiment was a thread that ran throughout the day from Democrats. It's more than a rhetorical point. As the FBI has reported, between 2002 and 2005, only 6 percent of terrorist attacks in the U.S. were perpetrated by Muslim extremists.
And ironically, as Seth Freed Wessler has previously reported for Colorlines, some supposedly radicalized terrorists have been generated by the FBI itself. As the bureau has reportedly ramped up investigations of American Muslims, particularly converts and black Muslims, over the past decade, watchdogs argue that it has routinely entrapped otherwise harmless, if disaffected people in plots dreamed up by agents. Wessler described in December the most recent example, the case of 21-year-old Antonio Martinez, who was charged with plotting to set off a bomb outside of a military recruiting station in Baltimore.
None of the plot, however, existed before the FBI instigated it and Martinez had no contact with any real terrorist organization.
The FBI deployed an informant to pose as an accomplice by adding Martinez as a friend on Facebook and communicate with him through Facebook messages. Martinez reportedly updated his status with comments about his devotion to Jihad. Once the young man had been identified as a target, the FBI informant helped imagine and orchestrate the plot, and supplied Martinez with a fake bomb and a vehicle to transport it. After he attempted to detonate the explosive remotely, the FBI arrested Martinez.
"It's one of those situations where the facts don't matter," said ACLU's Murphy about yesterday's hearings. "[Republicans have] dug in their heels."
Rep. Bill Pascrell, a New Jersey Democrat, was among the most harsh critics of the proceedings. Pascrell pounced on one witness, Melvin Bledsoe, who testified that his son had been radicalized by Islam and asserted that there exists an argument between those who take radicalization seriously and "the other side."
"When you say 'the other side,' I don't know what the hell you're talking about," Pascrell snapped. "Reasonable people will conclude the majority of Muslims are patriots."
Pascrell, who represents one of the largest Muslim constituencies in the country, says that every time he's met with the FBI about radicalism in his district, he's been told there's no overarching "hidden agenda" in the community. "Some pretty bad people come out of mosques. Some pretty bad people come out of Catholic churches," he said. "We have to avoid a broad brush."
In the day's first panel, Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, a Muslim, made the day's biggest headlines with a heartfelt appeal to celebrate the community's patriotism, rather than tar it with claims of terrorism. But Ellison also cautioned that, since the tips given to law enforcement officials by Muslim Americans have been an integral part of preempting domestic terrorist attacks, the hearings are actually threatening national security by alienating the community.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca, who has successfully worked to improve the relationship between law enforcement and the Muslim American community, reinforced the point in an afternoon panel. "I believe in bias-free policing and I believe in public trust policing," Baca said, arguing that guessing at the intentions of members of the Muslim community amounts to little more than a shell game. "You have facts, and you have a crime. Deal with it. We don't play around with criminals in my world."
It's unclear what the outcome of the hearings will be--aside from generating what Republicans are calling a productive conversation. They generated no new information about terrorism threats. But the hearings will continue. King has vowed that he won't bow to "political correctness" and will convene a series of hearings on Muslim Americans and terrorism over the next 18 months.