It's unusual for men to shed tears in public. And it's even more unusual for two tearful U.S. congressmen to appear on national television.
On election evening last year when John Boehner, a Republican representative from Ohio, was assured the House Speaker's position, the tears flowed. They came as he shared his feelings about the values of economic freedom, individual liberty, personal responsibility, and hard work, and how he had pursued the American Dream all his life.
On March 10 of this year, Keith Ellison, a Democratic representative from Minnesota (and a Muslim), gave testimony at a hearing sponsored by the House Homeland Security Committee chaired by Peter King, a Republican from Long Island. The focus of the hearing was a narrow one: "The extent of radicalization in the American Muslim community and that community's response."
In his testimony, Ellison made three main points. First, violent extremism is a serious concern for all Americans. Second, this committee's approach to violent extremism is contrary to American values, and threaten our security. Third, we need increased understanding and engagement with Muslim communities to keep America safe.
Ellison shared his concerns about the second point: when the actions of violent individuals are associated with an entire community, the blame is wrongly assigned to a whole group. This, he said, is at the very heart of stereotyping and scapegoating.
Peter King himself had been guilty of this in wrongly claiming that Muslims had generally refused to cooperate with law enforcement agencies on terrorism cases. According to Duke University's Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, 120 Muslims suspected of plotting terror attacks in the U.S. have been turned in by fellow Muslims since 9/11.
Ellison closed his testimony with the story of Mohammed Salman Hamdani. It was then that his voice broke and the tears came. Hamdani, a 23-year-old paramedic, a New York City police cadet, and a Muslim American, had been one of the first responders who tragically lost their lives in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Towers. In his short life, he had been on his high school football team in Queens. He then became a research assistant at Rockefeller University, drove an ambulance part-time, and on one Christmas sang in a presentation of Handel's Messiah in Queens. He had bravely sacrificed his life on behalf of the American Dream.
In response to King's hearings, Amir Arain, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Nashville, stated that he hopes that King will expand his hearings to look at radicals of all faiths and ideologies. "We support the Homeland Security Committee looking into extremism of every kind," he said. "Not singling out one religion."
One helpful resource King's committee could use is the spring 2011 issue of the "Intelligence Report" published by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The center has found some disturbing statistics. The number of hate groups operating in the U.S. rose from 932 in 2009 to 1,002 in 2010. The number of nativist vigilante groups increased from 309 in 2009 to 319 in 2010. But the greatest growth was in the number of anti-government "Patriot" movement groups, from 512 in 2009 to 824 in 2010. The article gives the location of all these groups around the U.S.
The report also quotes Morton Kondracke, executive editor of "Roll Call," who has commented that we are seeing "the Arizonification of America."
"Last year Arizona passed the harshest anti-immigration law in memory. It has become a state of Minuteman vigilantism, death threats against politicians and judges, talk-radio demagoguery, and bullying of Latinos and rival politicians."
The center offered a framing for all these developments: "Driven by anger over the country's changing racial demographics, the continuing harsh economy and demonizing propaganda found increasingly in the political mainstream, the number of radical-right groups has expanded dramatically."
It would seem that including a study of these other groups would be a better use of time and taxpayer money for the Homeland Security Committee. And there are other tears that need to be "heard."