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How Not to Fight Terrorism

A Commentary By Joe Conason

Friday, March 11, 2011

Despite the dubious credentials of Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., as an opponent of terrorism, owing to his years fronting for the Irish Republican Army, his controversial hearings on the "Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response" might still have proved useful. Had they included testimony from real experts, officials who are responsible for counter-terrorism and actual leaders from the Muslim community, the proceedings could have revealed fresh and important information.

That is, after all, the traditional purpose of congressional oversight hearings such as these, which are supposed to monitor the performance of federal agencies and highlight serious problems. Predictably, however, this particular show turned out to be almost fact-free and laden with emotion -- including long and pointless speeches by Homeland Security Committee members insisting that the whole exercise was not nearly as pointless as it seemed.

Yet it was hard to believe, in the end, that the hearings had been anything more than a gross waste of taxpayers' money and public attention -- and a strategic blunder in the nation's counter-terrorist effort.

Figuring out how to reduce the appeal of Islamist ideology among the world's young Muslims, whether here or abroad, is a subject worthy of careful examination. Determining how best to integrate America's Muslim communities into our national life and our law enforcement systems should also be explored in ways that do not exacerbate fears or exclusion. But the tone of King's remarks leading up to the hearings did little to advance those goals -- and instead set them back.

The obvious reason is that King himself had reached a firm conclusion about the alleged shortcomings of American Muslims much earlier -- and said so repeatedly. He accused Muslim leaders of failing to cooperate with law enforcement and of refusing to speak up for moderation and nonviolence within their own community. And he described himself as personally disillusioned with Muslims living in his district on Long Island.

But whatever King's experiences may have been, they are scarcely relevant to the larger questions that are now his responsibility to help answer. How big a threat is "home-grown" Islamic radicalism? How are we to address it most effectively? And what should be the role of the Muslim community? Suggesting that the entire community is to blame -- and thus further alienating young Muslims from society and government -- can only make the problem worse.

No city faces a more substantial and continuous threat from violent extremism than New York -- and no city has more successfully thwarted terrorist plots, well over a dozen so far since 9/11. The expert witness that King ought to have called is Ray Kelly, the city's police commissioner, whose attitudes and actions contrast starkly with King's.

Over the past decade, Kelly has built a counter-terrorism capability within the NYPD that relies upon strong relationships with Muslim leaders and a growing corps of Arabic-speaking and Muslim officers. Kelly himself spends an extraordinary amount of his time in the city's ethnic communities, notably including the Arabic and Muslim communities. He is reaching out, not pushing away.

The overwhelming majority of Muslims in America -- as King himself admits -- are law-abiding and patriotic, with no attraction to jihadist violence. Stigmatizing them and their faith may win airtime for King and draw cameras to his committee, but it does nothing to advance the security of the United States.

So we learned little from these hearings, except perhaps for one thing: The Homeland Security chairman is not up to the profound responsibilities of his job.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

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