WASHINGTON — Under heightened security, Rep. Peter King opened hearings Thursday into Islamic radicalization in America, dismissing what he called the "rage and hysteria" surrounding the hearings.
The hearings inspired days of protests by critics who said the hearings were overbroad and anti-Muslim.
The New York Republican has reignited a national debate over how to combat a spate of homegrown terrorism. The Obama administration has tried to frame the discussion around radicalization in general, without singling out Muslims. King has said that's just political correctness since al-Qaida is the main threat to the U.S.
|U.S. Rep. Peter King
"Homegrown radicalization is part of al-Qaida's strategy to continue attacking the United States," King said as he opened the hearings.
The top Democrat on the committee, Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, says he believes the hearings could be used to inspire terrorists.
"I cannot help but wonder how propaganda about this hearing's focus on the American Muslim Community will be used by those who seek to inspire a new generation of suicide bombers," Thompson said.
King told The Associated Press that he had larger security details for the past few months because of an overseas threat relayed in December. Since then, round-the-clock security has been provided by the New York Police Department and the Nassau County, N.Y., police.
On Thursday, at King's request, the Capitol Police secured the congressional hearing room and surrounding areas, as well as his office.
Rarely does a congressional hearing attract as much advance controversy. Critics have likened them to the McCarthy-era hearings investigating communism and King as "America's new McCarthy."
The hearings have also sparked protests on the grounds that Muslims are being targeted as terrorists.
Celebrities such as Adrian Grenier, Russell Simmons and Kim Kardashian all joined in a 'Today, I am Muslim too' protest over the weekend slamming the hearings.
But today, as he prepared to begin the hearings, Mr King said he 'will not back down to the hysteria created by my opponents'.He said the hearings are not 'un-American' and militancy among U.S. Muslims must be dealt with quickly.
In an email to supporters he said the hearings had been 'demonized;' he also included a link to a YouTube video entitled 'Rep. King Doing His Job by Holding Radicalization Hearings.'
At today's hearings, the witnesses include family members of young men who were inspired by others to go into terrorism, with deadly consequences. They plan to tell Congress that the young men were brainwashed by radical elements in the Muslim community.
Despite the protests, there's nothing in the prepared testimony that indiscriminately labels Muslims as terrorists, as critics had feared.
Melvin Bledsoe, whose son, Carlos, is charged with killing an Army private at a recruiting station in Little Rock, Ark., is scheduled to testify about his son's conversion to Islam and his isolation from his family.
"Carlos was captured by people best described as hunters," Bledsoe says in his prepared remarks obtained by the AP. "He was manipulated and lied to."
Another notable moment this morning came from Rep. Keith Ellison, D-MN, the first Muslim member of Congress. Breaking into tears, Ellison spoke about Mohammad Salman Hamdani, a New York City paramedic who died as he tried to help near the north tower of Manhattan's World Trade Center following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
"After the tragedy, some people tried to smear his character... solely because of his Islamic faith," Ellison said, his voice breaking. "Mohammad Salman Hamdani was a fellow American who gave his life for other Americans. His life should not be identified as just a member of an ethnic group or just a member of a religion, but as an American who gave everything for his fellow Americans."
Elsewhere at the Capitol, National Intelligence Director James Clapper was scheduled to address the threat of homegrown terrorism. In his prepared remarks, Clapper said 2010 saw more plots involving homegrown Sunni extremists — those ideologically aligned with al-Qaida — than in the previous year.
"Key to this trend has been the development of a U.S.-specific narrative that motivates individuals to violence," Clapper said.
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