Rep. Peter King will hold hearings on “the radicalization” of American Muslims when he gets his gavel for the House’s homeland-security committee. Framing the question that way predetermines its outcome: millions of Americans will be presumptively guilty of drifting into fellow-traveling with al-Qaeda. But King is right that even a statistically miniscule rise in homegrown terrorism deserves thorough analysis. The question is how real King will allow his hearings to get.
According to the Times piece reporting on King’s intended hearings, his impetus is “frequent concerns raised by law enforcement officials that Muslim leaders have been uncooperative in terror investigations.” Now: let’s say that for the past ten years, you’ve been portrayed in the media and by politicians as uniquely prone to terrorism. Let’s say that you’ve watched President Bush establish an island prison for detention without trial or habeas corpus that only contained your co-religionists. Let’s say you saw him enact surveillance programs that didn’t rely on individualized suspicion to ensnare the communications of people speaking in Muslim-heavy regions. Let’s say you saw him launch two wars in Muslim countries. Let’s say you saw people enacting those policies torture your fellow Muslims.
Then let’s say you saw President Obama, elected on a platform of checking Bush’s excesses, codify and escalate much if not most of what Bush did. Let’s say you saw him escalate the Afghanistan war even while pretty much no al-Qaeda operatives are in Afghanistan and then massively escalate a flying-robot-borne bombing campaign in Pakistan, where al-Qaeda’s leadership is supposed to be. Let’s say you saw him take his time in getting out of Iraq. Let’s say you saw him expand a nebulous war to Yemen; fail to close the island prison; and ponder the establishment of an indefinite detention statute whose one certainty, practically speaking, is that it will only apply to Muslims. Let’s say you saw airline security restrictions humiliate Muslim dignitaries.
Let’s say that you saw Muslims tip off law enforcement to a plot to bomb the D.C. Metro. Let’s say you saw Muslims tip off law enforcement to way more terror plots than that. Let’s say you saw one of the premier advocates of reconciling U.S. and Muslim identities within the American Muslim community — someone who helped the FBI quite a bit — still vilified as a stalking horse for terrorism. Let’s say you saw politicians like Peter King say that an Islamic Center a few blocks from Ground Zero rubbed salt in an American wound.
How American are you going to feel? How much investment will you believe that the country as a whole has in accepting you? How much confidence will you have that law enforcement looks at you as the subject of protection, not the wellspring of a threat, because of your background? (Islamic extremists kill way more Muslims than non-Muslims.)
Note what this isn’t: an apologia or an excuse for terrorism. There is not and never will be any excuse for terrorism, ever, without exception. No one’s social frustrations are justly redressed by acts of violence aimed at their fellow citizens. I’m not even saying that the above descriptions of the past ten years’ worth of counterterrorism policies are entirely fair.
What I am saying is that a durable American Muslim identity is one of the sturdiest protections against terrorism that this country has. It’s an overwhelmingly valuable counterterrorist asset. Law enforcement relies and has relied on American Muslims for vital information on radicalization in their communities. If we’re to take King’s idea seriously that such an asset is eroding, than we have to honestly investigate the uncomfortable prospect that U.S. counterterrorism efforts have contributed to that decline, as, say, John Brennan recently acknowledged.
As ever, national security is about striking balances: we don’t and shouldn’t back away from vital programs because they gore someone’s ox. We work to maximize their efficiency while minimizing or mitigating the aggravation they inspire, and we reevaluate how vital they are.
And yet that’s never what you get from the Peter Kings of the world. What you get is self-pity and victimization:
Indeed, Mr. King, a nine-term incumbent from Long Island, said that he had sought to raise the issue when Democrats had control of Congress, but was “denounced for it.” He added: “It is controversial. But to me, it is something that has to be discussed.”
We’ll see what a truth-teller he’ll be when it comes time to gavel in these hearings.