After a firestorm of controversy, Rep. Peter King pressed ahead with his hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee Thursday examining the threat of radical Islam within the United States.
He defended his decision to investigate the role of the Muslim community in homegrown terrorism even as his colleagues accused him of singling out Muslims, suggesting that fanatics from other religions deserve similar scrutiny.
"There is nothing radical or un-American about holding these hearings," King, a New York Republican, told the Capitol Hill hearing overflowing with reporters, network television cameras, congressional staff and protesters.
He listed the numerous incidents and terrorist plots in the United Stated involving radicalized Islamists since the Sept. 11 attacks, including the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas; the "Ft. Dix Six," who were arrested before they could attack the New Jersey installation; and the arrest last year of a Portland-area man who had intended to detonate a bomb during the city's annual tree lighting.
"This committee cannot live in denial," King said, adding that he refuses to bend to "political correctness."
But the committee's ranking member, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), asked why King had not also investigated white supremacist and anti-government groups.
"Acknowledgment of a commitment to be responsible does not equal political correctness," Thompson told King, echoing the message of King's critics around the country, who have called him racist, compared him to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and implored him to scrap Thursday's session or broaden its focus in the days leading up to it.
On Wednesday, a group of more than 50 Democrats, including the two Muslims serving in the House, wrote to King, asking him to cancel the hearing or examine religions in addition to Islam for their role in terrorist threats.
"Singling out one religious group and blaming the actions of individuals on an entire community is not only unfair, it is unwise -- and it will not make our country any safer," the lawmakers wrote.
The National Jewish Democratic Council warned the hearing would be detrimental to religious tolerance in America.
Despite the criticism, King pressed on and opened the session with testimony from fellow members of Congress.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) a veteran lawmaker, whose Dearborn, Mich., district is home to one of the largest Arab-American populations in the United States, spoke about the Muslim Americans living there.
"They are loyal, decent, honorable Americans, they hold elected office, they have immigrated to our state from all over the United States," he said. "They are as much distressed as we are about what we see going on."
But Dingell acknowledged what he called "the real threat" to the country of violent extremists and urged King to purse his investigations without losing site of the peaceful Muslim community Dingell said he has come to know.
In the most dramatic moment of the day, Rep. Keith Ellison (R-Minn.), the first Muslim-American elected to Congress, broke into tears as he testified about Mohammad Salman Hamdani, a 23 year-old paramedic and fellow Muslim who died responding to the September 11 terrorist attacks.
"After the tragedy, some people tried to smear his character solely because of his Islamic faith," Ellison said through tears. "He should not be identified as just another member of an ethnic group or just another religion, but as an American who gave everything to his fellow Americans."
Ellison had been called before the panel to offer his perspective representing a congressional district with the largest Somali-American population in the country. In the past, Ellison has accused King of being "McCarthyistic" in his approach to the Muslim community and wasted no time taking the congressman to task again Thursday.
"We need to approach this through fair analysis and do no harm. I fear this hearing does not meet that standard," Ellison said to King. "When you ascribe the violent actions [of individuals] to an entire community, you assign blame to an entire community. This is the heart of scapegoating and stereotyping."
But Ellison's aggressive tone softened as he neared the end of his remarks and told the committee the story of Hamdani, the paramedic from Queens.
"He was one of those brave first responders, who tragically lost his life in the 9/11 terrorist attack almost a decade ago," Ellison explained. As he told the story of the man wanting to be seen as "an all-American kid" and becoming a research assistant at Rockefeller University (while working as a paramedic part time), the congressman struggled to continue speaking.
"Mohammad Salman Hamdani was a fellow American, who gave his life for other Americans," Ellison said through his tears. "He should not be identified as just another member of an ethnic group or just another religion, but as an American who gave everything to his fellow Americans."
Two more witnesses described seeing young family members embrace radical Islam, with deadly consequences.
"Carlos was captured by people best described as hunters. He was manipulated and lied to," Melvin Bledsoe
told the committee about his son, Carlos Bledsoe, who converted to Islam and later fired on a military recruiting station in Little Rock, Ark., in 2009, killing one soldier. "They programmed and trained my son Carlos to kill."
Abdirizak Bihi described losing his teenage nephew, who left his family in Minneapolis after being persuaded to go to Somalia to train with Al Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-inspired militant group.
Finally, Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser and Los Angeles Sheriff Leroy Baca gave their own views of the radicalization threat. Jasser, the president and founder of American Islamic Forum for Democracy, warned that the leadership in the United States had become paralyzed by the issue and described an "exponential increase" in homegrown attacks by radicalized terrorists.
"The U.S. has a significant problem with Muslim radicalization," said Jasser. "It is a problem only we can solve."
Baca, who commands the largest sheriff's department in the country, initiated a Muslim community affairs unit within the L.A. County Sheriff's Department and described his experience working with Muslim officers in the pursuit of Muslim extremists. "You cannot judge one Muslim based on the actions of another," Baca said.
Following the hearing, King said it "actually went a lot better than it could have."
King is planning to continue the committee's focus on the issue of radical Islam, but has not yet scheduled the committee's next session.