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Right diagnosis, wrong remedy
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Right diagnosis, wrong remedy

I once had a soccer coach who gave the same advice for every injury, whether it was massive head trauma or a compound fracture. “Put some ice on it,” he’d say.

I think of that coach whenever someone suggests that the government shouldn’t be paying special attention to radical Islam, but rather to “terrorism” of all kinds. I mean, I get their point: Not every terrorist action has been carried out in the name of Islam. However, “terrorism” is a tactic, not a movement. Many of the folks who use the tactic are motivated by a specific set of ideologies and influences, and we need to fight Islamist terrorism in ways peculiar to its ideologies and influences.

Every injury hurts like hell, but you call a neurologist when you have brain damage.

Which brings me to Rep. Peter King. The problem with his tone-deaf, divisive hearings on Islam and radicalization was not that they focused on only one kind of terrorism, as some of his Jewish critics insisted. The problem was that he raised the issue in ways guaranteed to denigrate and humiliate run-of-the-mill Muslims without — and here’s the essential thing — demonstrating how the exercise would make us safer in any way.

Congressional hearings are weird hybrids of fact-finding and political theater. Occasionally, these pageants yield a real solution to a problem or at least prod someone into action. But just as often, they are a chance for lawmakers to create a sound bite and to convey to their constituents the illusion of action. When tobacco executives or investment bankers are hauled before Congress, it’s not for rigorous interrogation that will fully explain corporate malfeasance. It’s a public shaming.

Defenders of such spectacles say they are important if they serve no other function than to “shine a light” on a problem. The American Jewish Committee, one of the few major Jewish groups to unequivocally endorse the King hearings, said as much in its statement to his committee. “We cannot afford to ignore the increasing threat of homegrown terrorism inspired by Islamic extremist ideology and its continuing impact on our country,” said Yehudit Barsky, AJC’s terrorism expert.

What’s not clear from the AJC statement, however, is exactly who is ignoring the threat. Congress? The FBI? The media? The administration? If that were the scope of the hearings, I’d want a front-row seat.

In an op-ed for the New York Jewish Week based on her testimony, Barsky builds her case for the extent of homegrown terrorism on quotes from Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano and the New York State Intelligence Center (a network of intelligence specialists who work with Homeland Security and the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services). So at least the feds and the states aren’t ignoring the issue. That leaves whom?

Barsky also cites three thwarted plots by Muslim radicals, including the “2009 plot to blow up Jewish institutions in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.” But that case was thwarted by authorities who were not only on to it from the beginning, but whose informer was arguably responsible for radicalizing the perpetrators in the first place. In another case she cites — that of a radical who “intended to assassinate three rabbis in Tennessee and attack a series of Jewish institutions throughout the Northeast” — the suspect had been under investigation by the FBI’s Joint Terrorist Task Force after his return from Yemen.

That suggests to me that the authorities are already shining a pretty big light on these goings on — infiltrating mosques, tracking foreign travelers, etc.

What King and his supporters haven’t been able to explain is this: What would be different without the King hearings? Is there some specific mechanism for fighting terrorism that is being overlooked or discounted? And if you can’t explain that to me, was it really worth making all Muslims feel that their very religion was under attack?

In the effort to balance security and sensitivity, the Anti-Defamation League did a much better job than the AJC. “Homegrown Muslim extremists pose a real threat to the United States, but the issue is one that may be difficult to explore seriously in a hearing that has engendered an unfortunate atmosphere of blame and suspicion of the broader American Muslim community,” it said.

Even the title of the hearings — “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response” — suggested King was less interested in improving public safety than he was in putting all Muslims on notice. Not “The Impact of Radical Islamists in America and the Law Enforcement Community’s Response.” If King were investigating the BP oil spill, he’d be calling the ocean as a hostile witness.

King’s supporters like to say that this isn’t the first time that Congress has held hearings into homegrown terrorism: Chuck Schumer did it in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombings. The difference, however, is instructive: Those hearings focused on the extremist organizations and law enforcement. The hearings weren’t called “The Extent of Radicalization in the White Christian Community and that Community’s Response.”

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