Peter King Must Go

The chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security is asleep on the job, or worse, too busy picking on Muslims to notice the real terrorist danger to America: lone extremists with guns.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In the wake of Sunday’s deadly attack on American Sikh worshippers in Wisconsin by a white supremacist gunman, it’s time for Washington to reframe its debate about fighting terrorism to address all its forms. But before that can happen, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) must step down from his position as chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

The now-obvious truth is that King, known as Congress’s iron-fisted champion of all things security in this frightening post-9/11 era is, in actuality, soft on terrorism — at least where it counts. Since his tenure as chairman began in 2011, he has repeatedly refused to devote serious attention to the threats posed by white supremacist groups and right-wing extremism, opting instead to focus nearly all of his committee’s time and resources to Muslim extremism, a statistically minimal threat by comparison.

Since 9/11, right-wing extremist groups have committed twice as many attacks in the United States as jihadist-affiliated groups, according to research conducted by the New America Foundation. Even more startling, 53 reported acts of violence, the majority comprised of assaults and murders, were carried out by white supremacists between January 2007 and November 2009 alone. In light of last Sunday’s attack, it’s clear that King’s refusal to thoroughly examine the threat that these groups represent is, at best, an outright failure in his responsibilities as committee chairman. At worst, his inaction may have cost lives.

For years, King has branded himself on both the floor of Congress and in his incessant cable news appearances as the indefatigable foe of violent extremists. King’s House staff bio touts the congressman as having led the fight to "protect the New York-Long Island region from nuclear dirty bomb attacks." However, overblown rhetoric like this represents precisely the kind of counterterrorism fervor that leads the chairman to minimize the very real risks posed by hate-filled white supremacists in favor of delusions that he might foil a 24-style nuclear plot in the country’s largest metropolitan area.

And what kind of modern cinematic plot involving terrorists would be complete without Muslims, the demographic on which King has focused his misguided attempts to gauge loyalty? King’s anti-Muslim witch hunt reached its apotheosis last year with his now-infamous hearings on the "Extent of Radicalization in the Muslim American Community," which featured a parade of dubiously qualified witnesses portraying the entire U.S. Muslim community as a hotbed of terrorist activity.

Prior to the hearings, the committee’s ranking member, Representative Bennie Thompson (D-MS), feared that hearings headed by a man who once claimed, without any factual backing, that "80 to 85 percent of mosques in this country are controlled by Islamic fundamentalists," would be little more than a modern McCarthy-style trial of Muslim Americans, and asked that the chairman expand the proceedings to reflect all ideologically based threats.

King’s response? "There is no equivalency of threat between al Qaeda and neo-Nazis, environmental extremists or other isolated madmen," and "to back down would be a craven surrender to political correctness and an abdication of what I believe to be the main responsibility of this committee — to protect America from a terrorist attack."

King has not only failed to fulfill, in his own words, the main responsibility of the committee he chairs but, in the wake of his bullheaded charge to undermine political rivals, managed to overlook years of compelling research on the non-jihadist terror threat. In his letter to King, Thompson cited two reports, one from the University of Maryland Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, and the other from the Institute of Homeland Security Solutions, both of which warned of the more viable and statistically significant dangers posed by "lone wolf" terrorists.

This was not the first time King chose to ignore vital data that could have anticipated Wade Michael Page’s rampage either. A 2009 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report asserted presciently that "white supremacist lone wolves pose the most significant domestic terrorist threat because of their low profile and autonomy." The report was widely and quickly slammed by Republican congressmen, who felt the focus on right-wing terrorism was a way for the Obama administration to demonize the right as a whole.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights NGO known for its research on hate groups, was also remarkably prescient — even without the vast domestic surveillance infrastructure available to U.S. counterterrorism agencies. In 2011, it warned that the number of hate groups in the United States had, for the first time since they began monitoring them in the 1980s, jumped beyond 1,000. Even more damning, Page himself had been on the SPLC’s radar since 2000 as an outspoken voice in the neo-Nazi National Alliance and a prominent member of the white supremacist rock scene. Had law enforcement — spurred by a legislative body responding to data and research and eager to prevent loss of American lives — tracked the same warning signs, perhaps steps could have been taken to prevent last weekend’s tragedy.

Yet to date, King has not devoted even one of his many hearings to the topic of white supremacist or right-wing extremist groups and the threats they pose, even as the DHS was issuing increasingly alarming reports. But just last month, King held the fifth of his hearings on radicalization in the Muslim community. The topic? "The American Muslim Response to Hearings on Radicalization within their Community."

Yes, he called a hearing to discuss the reaction to his hearings. Mercifully, the hearing on the reaction to that hearing has not yet been added to the docket.

Worse than ignoring some terrorist threats while exaggerating others, King has a rather extensive and well-documented history of actually supporting terrorist groups — ones composed of white Christians, naturally. In 1982, King appeared at a rally in support of the Irish Republican Army in Long Island, and pledged his support for "those brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry." That same year, those "brave men and women" were using car bombs on banks, ships, and bridges. In fact, when asked in 1985 about civilians killed in IRA attacks, King said, "If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation, it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the IRA for it."

As the familiar refrain goes, America’s strength is in its diversity. And as last Sunday’s attack made clear, the faces of American terrorists are equally diverse. Yet, the chairman of a body designed to protect us seems willfully blind to the acts of terrorists who look like him. This is a dangerous development that must be taken seriously.

In the aftermath of this horrible tragedy, the entirety of America’s national security infrastructure should, and likely will, spend more time and place greater scrutiny on the threat posed by non-Muslim domestic terrorists. Unfortunately, for the victims of this latest massacre, the action comes far too late.

Chairman King has got to go.

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