Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisc.; 1908-1957) "was noted for making claims that there were large numbers of Communists and Soviet spies and sympathizers inside the United States federal government and elsewhere. Ultimately, McCarthy's tactics and his inability to substantiate his claims led him to be censured by the United States Senate. . . . Today the term ["McCarthyism"] is used more generally in reference to demagogic, reckless, and unsubstantiated accusations, as well as public attacks on the character or patriotism of political opponents." "Joseph McCarthy," wikipedia.org.
Having lived through the years of Senator Joseph McCarthy's ruthlessness, I can't let Representative Peter King's recent attacks on Muslims go without comment. Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Laurie Goodstein, "Domestic Terrorism Hearing Opens With Contrasting Views on Dangers," New York Times, March 11, 2011, p. A15; Petula Dvorak, "For many Muslim Americans, King’s hearings add to weight of community’s burden," Washington Post, March 10, 2011. Photo Credit: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times.
Concern for our country's national security is not only appropriate for members of Congress, it is one of their highest responsibilities.
But doing so by focusing on the members of a single ethnic group or religion has the appearance of a pursuit fueled more by prejudice at best, or political strategy uber alles without regard to consequences at worst, than thoughtful protection of Americans.
Let's take a look at security, terrorism, and other threats to Americans in context.
For starters, the word "terrorism" is so loosely used that it's not at all clear what it does and does not cover, as I've written at some length elsewhere. See, e.g., Nicholas Johnson, "General Semantics, Terrorism and War," Fordham University, New York City, September 8, 2006:
President Bush at one time said that those who finance, or “harbor” terrorists and their training camps, are as much our enemy as those who attack us.And speaking of those supporting the IRA, as an ironic additional example, Congressman King has himself been a supporter of what can legitimately (and has been) designated as a "terrorist organization" -- the IRA. Scott Shane, "For Lawmaker Examining Terror, a Pro-I.R.A. Past," New York Times, March 9, 2011, p. A1 ("For Representative Peter T. King, as he seizes the national spotlight this week with a hearing on the radicalization of American Muslims, it is the most awkward of résumé entries. Long before he became an outspoken voice in Congress about the threat from terrorism, he was a fervent supporter of a terrorist group, the Irish Republican Army.").
OK, but surely we don't want to argue that it is only "terrorism" when others do it to us. And yet, if not, how do we justify "harboring" -- to use President Bush's word – the American Catholics who were financing terrorist acts of the IRA against Protestants in Ireland?
What about the "harboring" of our former "School of the Americas" (“SOA”) training camp in Georgia? It's trained those we've called "freedom fighters," and others might call “terrorists,” in Central and South America.
School of the Americas Watch charges that, "Graduates of the SOA are responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in Latin America.” Does that make the former School of the Americas a terrorist training camp?
Apparently our government thinks not. At least there was no known plan to bomb the State of Georgia -- to be distinguished from our military forces sent to the Republic of Georgia.
Should we have bombed the State of Idaho [Timothy McVeigh's residence] after the Oklahoma City bombing?
"Terrorism" is not the only, or even the worst, threat to our security and well being. Just ask the Japanese. "March 11 Earthquake and Tsunami," March 11, 2011. No terrorists were involved in that disaster.
As noted in that blog entry, one of the most useful inquiries Congress might undertake is a study of what we can learn from the Japanese preparation for, and response to, such disasters. Why, and in what ways, are they seemingly so much better organized and responsive than we were in our response to, say, Katrina? Alan Greenblatt, "Japanese Preparedness Likely Saved Thousands," NPR, March 13, 2011.
What is our government doing, for example, in the face of the U.S. chemical industry's resistance to security measures designed to prevent, or at least minimize, the consequences of spills of toxic chemicals or gases? "DHS eager to start monitoring chemical plant safety," DHS, Homeland Security Newswire, February 23, 2006 ("We have been critical of the chemical industry’s evasion of responsibility for the public welfare, and its stubborn resistance, until very recently, to any meaningful security measures in its more than 15,000 U.S. plants, including the 400 or so which pose the highest risk of mass-casualty catastrophes. . . . The problem now is that Congress has not yet passed legislation to extend DHS regulatory authority over chemical plants.").
It was a mite ironic that, at the same time Rep. King was attacking Muslims, the President and Mrs. Obama were hosting a conference at the White House on bullying. Jackie Calmes, "Obamas Focus on Antibullying Efforts," New York Times, March 11, 2011, p. A18. Terrorism? Make no mistake, to a young child it is -- as the occasional suicide makes clear. (Not incidentally, "[Timothy] McVeigh claimed to have been a target of bullying at school and that he took refuge in a fantasy world where he retaliated against those bullies." Timothy McVeigh, wikipedia.org.)
And to the extent that, what let us call "extremists," engage in bombing or other use of force in attacking civilians at random, any rational and fair look at the problem requires a much broader view than King's focus on one religious group -- as R.J. Matson so colorfully explains:
Credit: R.J. Matson, St. Louis Post Dispatch; Web page; biography; this cartoon.
If you can't read the text, Matson shows "Chairman Peter King" connecting the dots that spell "Muslims," while saying "All of those other dots don't need connecting" -- the dots related to "Anti-abortion zealots" (some of whom advocate assassinating abortion doctors), "Right-wing militias," "IRS haters," "Neo-Nazis" and "Al-Qaida."
An organization that has for years tracked homegrown terrorism is the Southern Poverty Law Center. As one of its recent reports notes, notwithstanding "historic Republican gains, the early signs suggest that even as the more mainstream political right strengthens, the radical right has remained highly energized. In an 11-day period this January, a neo-Nazi was arrested headed for the Arizona border with a dozen homemade grenades; a terrorist bomb attack on a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Spokane, Wash., was averted after police dismantled a sophisticated anti-personnel weapon; and a man who officials said had a long history of antigovernment activities was arrested outside a packed mosque in Dearborn, Mich., and charged with possessing explosives with unlawful intent. That’s in addition, the same month, to the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, an attack that left six dead and may have had a political dimension." Mark Potok, "The Year in Hate & Extremism, 2010," Southern Poverty Law Center, Intelligence Report, Issue Number 141, Spring 2011.
Nor are things getting better. As the Southern Poverty Law Center reports,
"Hate groups topped 1,000 for the first time since the Southern Poverty Law Center began counting such groups in the 1980s. Anti-immigrant vigilante groups, despite having some of the political wind taken out of their sails by the adoption of hard-line anti-immigration laws around the country, continued to rise slowly. But by far the most dramatic growth came in the antigovernment 'Patriot' movement — conspiracy-minded organizations that see the federal government as their primary enemy — which gained more than 300 new groups, a jump of over 60%."
A genuine, honest, look at the range of threats confronting Americans might be useful, depending on how it was done. Focusing on a single religion -- especially in a way that only strengthens Al Qaida, and any extremists tempted to join them -- is not.