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Rep. King’s Radicalization Hearings Draw Strong Feelings on Capitol Hill

Republican Representative Peter King of New York, Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, arrives for the first in a series of hearings on radicalization in the American Muslim community on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., March 10, 2011. (SAUL L

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., opened his controversial hearings to examine Muslim radicalization in America amid a chaotic atmosphere Thursday on Capitol Hill by offering a defense of the proceedings.

“Let me make it clear today that I remain convinced that these hearings must go forward. And they will. 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 said in his prepared remarks.

The Homeland Security Committee invited several panels of witnesses to discuss the issue of radical Muslims in the United States and cooperation with law enforcement in fighting terrorism.

The hearing drew strong feelings from inside and outside the room. One of the witnesses, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to Congress, became emotional during his testimony while discussing a Muslim man who died during the Sept. 11 attacks as a first responder.

He warned the committee not to lump all Muslims in with those who had committed acts of terrorism.

“Mohammed 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,” Ellison said. (Ellison will appear on the NewsHour on Thursday evening to discuss the hearing.)

Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca told the committee that he thought many Muslims cooperate with law enforcement in his area. “There is an emerging confidence among the Muslim community, particularly in Los Angeles … people are realizing (that) police aren’t there to mess around with them, and they have primary focus on prevention,” Baca said.

Another witness, Melvin Bledsoe, warned that the threat of Islamic extremism is real. He said his son Carlos was indoctrinated by radical Muslims and is accused of killing a U.S. soldier at a military recruitment center in Arkansas.

“I must say that we are losing American babies. Our children are in danger,” Bledsoe told the committee. “This country must stand up and do something about the problem. … Tomorrow it could be your son, your daughter.”

Outside the hearing room in the House Cannon office building, many people lined the hallways waiting to get into the hearing. An overflow room set up to allow more people to watch the hearing on television filled quickly.

Samira Hussein of Montgomery County, Md., was waiting in line to get into the hearing. Hussein said she is Muslim and was worried the King hearings could increase mistrust of American Muslims. She also said she was afraid for the safety of her children.

“I want to tell Peter King that my children, this is the only country they know. This is their home, and they are just as American as he is,” Hussein said. She said she is a Palestinian refugee and that her family had been intimidated and her home vandalized during the 1990s.

“When the authorities think all Muslims are bad or terrorists, that’s going to promote more hate and more violence against my own family,” she added.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, defended the hearings as an effort to a highlight a “threat to America that lives in our country.” He cited the examples of alleged Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan and Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born radical cleric who is believed to be hiding in Yemen and who has encouraged attacks on the U.S.

McCaul also defended moderate Muslims. “Moderate Muslims are our greatest ally,” he said. (McCaul will also appear on Thursday’s NewsHour.)

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