The hearings begun by Republican Peter King have, not surprisingly, polarized the debate on homeland security. Leftists are calling foul, drawing comparisons to McCarthy’s Commie witch hunts. The problem with branding the hearings prior to the event is that what made the McCarthy hearings so reprehensible was the way they were conducted. It was, as described, a witch hunt based on shoddy evidence and with purely self-serving political aims.
Now, to be fair to critics of Rep. King, his résumé looks quite similar to McCarthy’s when one substitutes communist for radicalized Muslim. Which begs the question, if American security is the primary concern of these hearings, wouldn’t it have been wiser to appoint someone else to lead them? Of course, considering King’s constituency, there is a huge amount of political capital to be gained from appearing hard on terrorism.
In the end, appearing hard on terrorism may be the hearings’ great failure. Just as it is reasonable for Americans to be concerned about the radicalization of Christianity and how it increases the likelihood of domestic terrorism, it is reasonable to investigate any religious sub-group that promotes terrorism. The truth is, radical Christians who use the Bible to justify violence of any kind are an insult to my faith. I will do anything to foil Christians who distort my faith for violent or destructive ends.
The problem is, if I am addressed and treated as a radical first because of my faith, and a citizen only after I have proven my “loyalty,” I will inevitably become far less likely to cooperate. And that’s where these hearing become problematic. If American-Muslims are treated as suspicious first, then as citizens only after proving themselves, we lose a invaluable resource. Just as a sane Christian cannot tolerate violence against abortion clinics or homosexuals, a sane Muslim cannot abide terrorism. (Now may be a good time to point out the unavoidable irony, as Rep. King has historically supported a terrorist organization with strong ties to a particular brand of Christianity.) However, if these hearings take on the face of a witch hunt, we may actually weaken our national security. The fact is, most “homegrown” Muslim terrorists have been foiled by concerned Muslims (see Liz Halloran’s article or Jonathan Alter’s )
In the end, it is too early to judge the hearings, as we are yet to see exactly how Rep. King will conduct himself. The truth is, terrorism is a concern, and there are Islamist groups who seek to terrorize the United States. The test for King or any other group looking to improve American security is whether it can effectively isolate these groups while working to ensure that American-Muslim allies (the vast majority of Muslims) not only cooperate, but do so because they feel that their rights as American’s are being attacked by terrorists and not the United States government.
Drew recently brought up the issue of racism, and since I’ve just finished Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindess I thought I’d join the conversation. In his post Drew wants to separate bigots from racists, arguing that we’re all racists to the extent that we presuppose certain aspects of culture will be attached to race, such as voting patterns and race. I think this is right, although I don’t think it goes far enough. The fact of the matter is that racism is really very little about attitudes, whether bigoted or not. Racism is about power.
Power to define an identity, as it were. Rowan Williams talks about it like this: racism is “the taking away of a right to determine the conditions and possibilities for a specific variety of human living, of the freedom to define oneself, as person or as community…(On Christian Theology, 280-281). His point here is simply that every life story is set in some context – family, community, nation. Most people interact with that story by appropriating parts, rejecting other parts, and adapting other parts to their life situation. When we are free these stories become the conditions of possibility for our own life stories, and not hindrances. E.g., part of my family were German immigrants about 100 years about. My great-grandfather lived in Brooklyn, and saved up enough money to buy a farm in Upstate NY. As a family of farmers, I was destined, as it were, to live in a rural area. But my father, unlike his father, went to college, and my father developed a love for books and culture. I went to college too, and while I moved from that particular area, some things stayed with me – like love of books and culture – so much so that I went to graduate school. My story is fundamental to how I define myself, but in a way that is a condition of possibility, rather than a hinderance.
But racism is different. Instead of a condition of possibility, the story becomes a hinderance. My story could work partly because I am white, and I am allowed to become something more (although i didn’t have to – many people reject their histories, and for a variety of reasons, see them as hindrances, even when they’re not).
For young men of color, their story is almost entirely made up for them. And it’s a story where they are completely marginalized. The reason is simple: black men are incarcerated at such a high rate their entire life story is determined by their relation to the penal system (and, by the way, this rate is not proportionate to their rates of crime – e.g., whites perpetrate most drug crime, but make up only 6% of the prison population). There is a de facto caste system in our country because of the War on Drugs, a system that is so racially skewed that there is no getting around the fact that we are just as racist a society as we ever have been.
So in many ways, I don’t think racist attitudes are the real issue. In fact, while it’s true we are all racist to an extent, this also allows us something of a free pass unless we’re willing to talk about the reality for people of color in this country. The fact that we are a “colorblind” society just adds to the problem – we don’t acknowledge the fact that racism isn’t an attitude, but a fact.
Or, as Mos Def says, ‘they say they want you successful, but then they make it stressful,/you start keepin’ pace, they start changing up the tempo.’