Congressman Peter King of Long Island is a tough-talking, no-nonsense New Yorker, but those who have followed his career know that he is not unfamiliar with the choreographed niceties of diplomacy. Mr. King was a major player in the Irish peace process in the 1990s, intervening in that once-intractable conflict to help bring about a reasonably happy ending.
Mr. King’s appreciation for nuance and subtlety, while not always evident in his gruff demeanor, had better be on display when he presides over a House committee hearing into allegations that some American Muslims are becoming radicalized and militant. The topic must be treated with great care. Otherwise, Mr. King or his colleagues will make matters worse. One false move or poorly worded accusation could worsen rather than ease tensions between the majority of Muslim Americans, who are good and productive citizens, and those Americans who seem eager to believe the worst about their Muslim neighbors.
New Yorkers know all too well how quickly any discussion of Islam can degenerate into virtual hate speech. Last year’s raucous debate over a proposed Islamic Center in downtown Manhattan should remind Mr. King and his colleagues of just how volatile this conversation can be. Demagogues from Alaska to the Deep South chimed in with unrequested opinions about the propriety of building such a structure near ground zero. What ought to have been a simple land-use decision made at the community board level–by people who live in the neighborhood attacked on 9/11–became an international incident that remains unresolved.
It is entirely possible–some fear the word is “probable”–that Mr. King’s hearings will produce the same divisive result, never mind that the congressman continues to insist that most Muslim Americans are decent people who have no intention of waging jihad in the land they call home. If Mr. King’s fellow Republicans, representing a constituency that seems particularly unsympathetic toward Muslim Americans, take a page from Joseph McCarthy, they may earn extra face time on Fox News but they will do a disservice to this country and the values it espouses.
Mr. King is not wrong to insist that homegrown terrorism is a concern. Several plots by Muslim Americans have been thwarted in recent years, and those who insist that these were isolated incidents simply are not paying attention.
It is important, however, to emphasize over and over again that these hearings should be an inquiry, not a witch hunt, and that they should be designed to gather information, not to serve as a platform for political posturing. It will be up to Mr. King to make sure that these proceedings bring no shame to his party and this nation.