I spent some time last week watching Peter King’s controversial hearing. Okay, I should get a life. The Long Island Congressman is said to be obsessed with the Muslim menace, ostensibly because he was so traumatized by 9/11. Standing on a Riverside Park pier that day, Manhattan neighbors and I watched in shock and disbelief the smoke and ash rising into a crystal clear sky over what was left of the Towers downtown. But horrifying as that brutal invasion of our beloved city was, I haven’t emerged with an obsession about what Joseph McCarthy called Enemies from Within.
It is the specter of a McCarthy déjà vu that has so aroused Mr. King’s critics and with good reason. Both the late Senator and this latter-day, shall we call him McCing, share a penchant for seeing exaggerated threats and making unsubstantiated fright-provoking assertions. Some of King’s fabrications were enumerated in the NY Times editorial before the hearing. Echoes of old Joe’s 1950s could be heard in Peter’s 2011 Washington with talk of a Muslim conspiracy. South Carolina’s freshman Jeff Duncan raised the specter of Shariah law, implying it might be imposed on all of us. To digress a moment — those who want to terrify us with this danger (as he put it) are the very same folks relentlessly seeking to incorporate their particular religious ideology on social issues — abortion, marriage, stem cell research and the like — into our civil law. Perhaps they don’t call it Shariah, but to me it’s a difference without distinction.
McCartyites persecuted American citizens, particularly on the left, by declaring they were conspiring to turn us into a Communist state. In the modern version, King asserts that Al Qaeda is actively grooming radicals who are lurking in every single mosque (think every government agency and university in the ‘50s) across America. Assumably that would be part of the danger posed by the lower Manhattan Islamic Center, which he so vehemently opposes. Even were we to accept the Committee’s exclusive focus on Muslims — which I don’t — the absence of objective experts or the presentation of hard verifiable data was in itself a glaring indictment. The only credentialed outside witness was the LA Sheriff put forward by minority Democrats. King opted to hear from the leader (good American Muslim) of a tiny activist group and (for drama) two individuals from whose anecdotal reports, however distressing, one can’t extrapolate even close to the comprehensive menace that King claims we face.
Speaking of that threat, let’s put all of this in context starting with a realty check. To hear King and his like-minded committee members you’d think Islam, with its evil intentions, is spreading here ameba-like, infiltrating every city and town. In fact, according to the authoritative Pew Religious Landscape Study, Muslims account for a miniscule .06% of our population (behind Buddhists at .07% and slightly ahead of Hindus at .04%). That’s important because what strikes me isn’t only the similarities between this wrongheaded hearing and those of the McCarthy years, but how it reflected our continued problem with racism and religious prejudice. The tipoff is that virtually every speaker — Republicans and Democrats — felt obliged to make the obligatory and often disingenuous some of my best friends or most Muslims are decent law abiding people statement. As a member of a small religious minority (1.7% qualifies), I am all too familiar with this code; African Americans and Hispanics can likely recite unending variations of it in their sleep. Add to that the pompous pronouncement that terrorism is a perversion of a great religion uttered by someone, who likely hasn’t a clue about the nature and teachings of Islam but nonetheless feels empowered to make that judgment. These are all manifestations of that disdain/wariness of the other, the subject of an earlier post. Nothing typifies this more than the unending suggestions that our President is not native born and a closet Muslim to boot.
Of course the larger context of King’s hearing is the post 2010 election environment in which a tea soaked Republican Party considers itself mandated (by the American people) to dismantle whatever gains the country may have made recently and revert to the old ways and more. This smells more like politics than protecting our homeland's security. It’s a blatant attempt to put up a smoke screen that might distract us from their real agenda. With it comes the resurgence of people like Abramoff’s pal Ralph Reed and the Lazarus resurrection of the hypocrite serial adulterer and newborn Catholic, Newt Gingrich. What we’re experiencing is a general retrogression into another déjà vu, the days of the Taliban-like Christian Right. Make no mistake, what threatens us aren’t terrorist cells in every mosque but the resurgence of people who want to permanently disable government and undermine whatever meager workers rights and social safety net remain.
Peter King rails against Islamic terrorists, while having built his early career as a vocal cheerleader for the then terrorist IRA. Those were his people — right color, right religion — who he characterized as the legitimate voice of occupied Ireland and not morally to blame for, among others, 600 civilian deaths. I remember being in London when some of those wonderful folks detonated a nail bomb in Hyde Park killing four members of the ceremonial Queen’s Guard and seven horses, all obviously oppressors of the Irish. Mr. King sees no immoral equivalency, and that’s all we really have to know about him and his supporters. The sad thing is that his prejudice extends far and wide, and that, much like the irrational fear and loathing of Communists in an earlier time. Ultimately it’s this kind of thinking and what comes out of it that threatens our long-term security. That’s truly scary.