Paul Pillar

Peter King and Selective Opposition to Extremism

The hearings that Rep. Peter King (R-NY), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, is opening this week on extremism in the American Muslim community have received more advance attention than almost any other proceeding by a Congressional committee in the last couple of years, apart from the confirmation of Supreme Court nominees. King has opened himself to justified criticism for his statements that exaggerate the extent of radical infiltration of the Muslim community and that inaccurately describe the willingness of most members of that community to cooperate with the authorities in rooting out the extremists that do exist. King is correct to point out, however, that radical Islamism is the brand of extremism with which most of the terrorist threats that have surfaced in the United States in recent years have been identified. It would be political correctness run amok if Congressional committees had to be equal opportunity investigators when looking into threats to U.S. national security.

The focus of the hearings should be of greater concern for the message they send overseas as well as to communities at home. They will be widely read as an indication that U.S. postures and policies that are ostensibly aimed at combating terrorism are really more about combating Muslims. And that reading will in turn stir more anti-Americanism among Muslims.

Even the hazard of that sort of interpretation would be bearable if the inquiry were being led by someone who had demonstrated a consistent concern for opposing terrorism no matter what coloration it takes. Representative King is not such a person. An earlier phase of his Congressional career was highlighted by his being an up-front, enthusiastic apologist for a terrorist group: namely, the Provisional Irish Republican Army. He characterized the PIRA as a “legitimate force” and the British government it opposed as a “murder machine,” while comparing group leader Gerry Adams to George Washington. This aspect of King's association with the issue of terrorism has received some attention, as in a recent article by Peter Finn in the Washington Post, but not as much as the controversy over the Muslims-only scope of the hearings.

We should recall what the PIRA did. It was responsible for more of the 1800 deaths, including more than 600 civilians, during Northern Ireland's Troubles than any other group, as well as killing another 60 civilians in its attacks in England. As with other campaigns of terrorism, the PIRA was responsible for the death of many innocent people who had nothing to do with whatever grievances underlay the campaign.

King's rationalizations of his support for the PIRA sound contrived when applied to a target such as Britain, which was one of the more benign imperial powers that history has seen. There is little reason to expect that PIRA's terrorism hastened a political evolution in Northern Ireland into something like the power-sharing arrangement that exists there today. There is more reason to believe that it retarded the process, by turning Ulster into a security problem and not just a political problem and by intensifying the fear and distrust between the communities there. King's rationalizations could be applied more plausibly to some of the Islamist terrorism of recent years, much of which has been motivated by opposition to authoritarian regimes and foreign military occupation.

A later event that has been mentioned as if it were some kind of vindication of King's pro-PIRA stance was the Good Friday peace agreement to which the PIRA in its political guise of Sinn Fein was a party. But the agreement was instead a rejection of terrorism and a path for the PIRA to get out of that deadly business. It was no more a justification of the group's terrorism than the agreement that Britain and the United States reached with Muammar Gaddafi was a justification of earlier Libyan terrorism such as the bombing of Pan Am 103.

Another event that has been mentioned in the same vein is King's later falling out with his PIRA friends after they became openly critical of certain U.S. policies during the past ten years. This turnabout did not reflect any second thoughts by King about his earlier defense of terrorism. Instead, it simply demonstrated anew that what he cares about is not so much combating terrorism but rather his like or dislike for certain causes or interests. He is hardly the only one to use the issue of terrorism or extremism in such an inconsistent fashion. His posture is most reminiscent of the posture that many Third World regimes took in the United Nations General Assembly some thirty years ago, when they refused to condemn as terrorism actions that were clearly that, because they were the work of favored “national liberation movements”.

This kind of selective approach toward violent methods is a pernicious brand of moral relativism. It is a denial of the concept that it is simply wrong to inflict deadly harm on innocent noncombatants outside the laws of warfare. This is a concept that underlies all counterterrorism. The denial is bad in its own right. It also undermines, through its hypocrisy, opposition to counterterrorism in general—and as such it furthers even the kinds of terrorism that the hypocrite himself is most concerned about.