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NYT: Terror Hearing Puts Lawmakers in Harsh Light

March 10, 2011- One member of Congress broke down and cried. Another was so incensed that she waved a pocket-size copy of the Constitution and declared, “This breathing document is in pain.” And there were so many angry charges of McCarthyism and countercharges of “political correctness” that it sometimes seemed that the topic at hand on Thursday in Washington was the radicalization of the House Homeland Security Committee, not American Muslims. 

The televised hearing, led by Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, was jarring and not just because of the politically delicate subject matter, namely, terrorist sympathies within the Muslim American community. These kinds of proceedings tend to be prosecutorial, but lawmakers in this case mostly pointed fingers at one another.

The McCarthy hearings and Watergate were extraordinary spectacles that changed politics and the way people watched television, but televised hearings are now so commonplace that most go unnoticed. Over the past few years in particular, viewers have grown accustomed to a crisis-timed ritual of rebuke and repentance.

Lawmakers summon the titans of Wall Street and berate them for the crash. They scold auto company executives in search of bailouts. They shame the chief executive of BP for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. There isn’t always unanimity among the members, of course. (Representative Joe L. Barton, Republican of Texas, is best remembered for apologizing to Tony Hayward, then the chief executive of BP, for what he called the $20 billion “shakedown” from the White House.)

But at Thursday’s hearing, there was no single institution summoned to the hot seat. The few outside witnesses who appeared were eager to combat radical extremism, not defend it. Mostly, it was the committee itself that seemed to be on trial.

Republicans accused Democrats of sacrificing security and common sense to political correctness. (Mr. King, the committee’s chairman, bragged that he had been attacked by, among others, Kim Kardashian.)

Democrats accused Republicans of singling out Muslims and of discounting non-Muslim acts of terrorism, including hate crimes by white supremacists.

The debate wasn’t simply about civil rights versus national security; it was about legitimacy and identity. And the confrontations were at times so visceral that they eclipsed the subject of terrorism.



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