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Mark Potok: Peter King Hearings on Muslims “Despicable”

Web ExclusiveMarch 10, 2011
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A controversial hearing on the radicalization of the American Muslim community has opened today on Capitol Hill, led by New York Republican Rep. Peter King. Critics have described the hearings as a modern-day form of McCarthyism designed to stoke fear against American Muslims. King has refused calls to broaden the hearing to examine right-wing militias or any non-Muslim groups. We speak with Mark Potok, director of Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In Washington state, a former U.S. soldier with ties to a white supremacist organization was arrested Thursday for planning an attack on the Martin Luther King Day parade in Spokane earlier this year. The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified Kevin William Harpham as a one-time member of the National Alliance.

The arrest comes just as New York Republican Congressmember Peter King is set to open a controversial hearing today on the radicalization of the American Muslim community. Critics have described the hearings as a modern-day form of McCarthyism designed to stoke fear against American Muslims. King has refused calls to broaden the hearing to examine right-wing militias or any non-Muslim groups. King has repeatedly defended his hearing.

REP. PETER KING: There’s been a concerted effort, a change in strategy by al-Qaeda, to recruit and to radicalize Muslim Americans in this country. They realize they can’t attack us from the outside the way they did before, so now they’re attempting to radicalize and recruit people from within the Muslim community, who are living here legally, and are under the radar screen. That’s number one.

Number two is to generate support in the Muslim American community itself to get more responsible leaders to come forward. I think it’s wrong that a group like CAIR, which is an unindicted co-conspirator in a major terrorist financing case, ends up being a spokesman for the Muslim community. I think they need much — a much better spokesman to come forward, and also to realize the importance of cooperating more with law enforcement than they have up ’til now.

As chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, we have to do a threat analysis. And when you look at it, there is no threat coming from members of other religions, other than acting as individuals. We’re talking about a threat here which is being supported by a international enemy of the United States. It’s an enemy which has already killed thousands of Americans. We’ve seen instances — again, just in the last year and a half, we had an attempted subway bombing in Nassau County from a Muslim living legally in this country, who was recruited; a Times Square bombing; we have Major Hasan. There’s been over 50 homegrown terrorists in this country alone over the last two years.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Republican Congressmember Peter King talking to CBS.

To discuss this issue, we’re joined by Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Mark Potok. Your take on these hearings today?

MARK POTOK: Well, I think they’re despicable. I think that the truth is, is that Peter King does not come to this with clean hands, quite the opposite. You know, the reality is that this is a guy who has said that 85 to 80 — or 80 to 85 percent of the leaders of mosques are radicals, are jihadists, tied to extremism and so on. And I think that that is objectively entirely false.

Also, as in the clip you just played, King makes a claim that Muslims, as a general matter, have not cooperated with law enforcement. You know, I have to say, we train thousands of law enforcement officials every year at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and that is not remotely what we hear from them or from their leaders. It’s probably worth pointing out that a respected think tank, the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, associated with University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, just released a study last month in which they found that 48 of 120 alleged domestic Muslims who were thinking about carrying out some kind of terror attack were, in fact, turned in to authorities by fellow Muslims. So, I think the reality is, is that there is no reason to look at, you know, the radicalization of the Muslim community. And, you know, I think what happened yesterday in Spokane very much underlines the real irony of King being absolutely unwilling to look at this.

You know, the other thing I would say, briefly, is that, you know, one can imagine, what if Keith Ellison, a Muslim congressman, proposed hearings in Congress on fundamentalist Christians? How do they become radicalized? After all, it’s undeniable that the fundamentalist community is the place where the vast majority of abortion clinic bombers and murderers of doctors, and so on, come from. I think it’s perfectly obvious that, were that to happen, the White House or Congress would rapidly be surrounded, at least metaphorically, with people with, you know, flaming brands and pitchforks, demanding the heads of their congressmen.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Mark, I’d like to ask you, in terms — you’ve tracked hate crimes and hate violence across the country. Where is the terrorism, the bulk of terrorism in the United States, coming from? You’ve documented this extensively.

MARK POTOK: Well, the truth is, is that the bulk of domestic terrorism, terrorism that originates in the United States, carried out by Americans, is coming from the radical right: from white supremacist groups, from so-called anti-government patriot groups. You know, Peter King goes on about, of course, the World Trade Center attacks, and they were terrible indeed. Three thousand people died. But I will tell you that in the late ’90s, for instance, there was a major Klan plot in Texas northwest of Fort Worth, in which the people, who were caught before they carried out their attack, it was going to be the bombing of a natural gas refinery right next to an elementary school. The authorities said after the arrests that had these people pulled this attack off, they would have killed between ten and thirty thousand people — in other words, 10 times the number of people who died on September 11th of 2001.

So, you know, I would also point out that there’s a very active movement right now. We’re in the middle of a real backlash against Barack Obama, against the changing racial demographics of this country, and so on. Within just a few days, in fact, of the Martin Luther King attempted attack in Spokane, we had two other very significant arrests. A man named Jeffrey Harbin, a well-known neo-Nazi, was arrested on his way to the border, the Arizona border with Mexico, and charged with having built 12 IEDs, packed with ball bearings to maximize human carnage, as the prosecutor up there said. Just a few days after the Martin Luther King episode, another man was arrested in a car outside one of the largest mosques in America, in Dearborn, Michigan. The authorities say he was planning to blow up that mosque. His car was packed with explosives. At the time, some 500 people were inside the mosque praying at a funeral. So, you know, that is the kind of thing we’re seeing out there that the likes of Peter King simply will not look at.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about the man who was just arrested for the attempted attack on the Martin Luther King parade in Spokane.

MARK POTOK: Well, Kevin Harpham, we know a little bit about. What we know for certain is that he was a member of the National Alliance in the year 2004, at least. We don’t know when he joined or when he left.

The National Alliance was, for some 30 years, the leading neo-Nazi organization in the United States. It was headed by a guy named William Pierce, the author of the infamous book The Turner Diaries, a kind of race war novel that has become, in effect, the bible of the radical right. Another way of thinking about the National Alliance is this is a group that produced a man named Bob Mathews. He was in fact their Northwest coordinator, their Pacific Northwest coordinator back in the mid-'80s. Bob Mathews went on to lead a group called the Silent Brotherhood, which murdered a talk show host in Denver and did a number of other quite amazing terrorist actions. So this is a group that's produced a lot of violence.

Other things I know about Harpham is that we found that he in fact had been posting to various neo-Nazi sites, including one called Vanguard News Network. He also wrote on the internet a number of postings about a film called Loose Change, which is quite well known, a conspiracy film about 9/11: the government knew all about it in advance, that kind of thing. So, you know, this is clearly a movement. A man, he was not terribly well known. I really don’t know much more about him at all, other than what I’ve said, but he was out there. And there are others like him.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Mark, one of the real ironies of these hearings that are being held this week is that the congressman involved, himself, has been — when he was a political leader in Nassau County, in Long Island, was himself a major supporter of the IRA, and an unabashed supporter of the IRA, and even of its tactics against the British.

MARK POTOK: Yes, I know about that, and it is a — I mean, the irony is more than rich. They hypocrisy is screaming. You know, it’s difficult to understand how even the Republican Party can really allow this to go forward, given the position of Peter King. I mean, I just think it says hypocrites all over it. Nevertheless, you know, I see in polling that most Americans seem to support the King hearings, which I think is a sad story.

AMY GOODMAN: First he says that the IRA wasn’t targeting the United States. And on the issue of why, moving forward, a lot of people are supporting, saying, “Why not? How could it hurt to start dealing with anyone who targets this country?” Mark Potok?

MARK POTOK: Well, I mean, what the hearings really do, though, is they identify the Muslim community as the threat, as even the clip you played showed. You know, he says that this is where the danger is coming from, this is where the terrorists are coming from, period. And, you know, as our discussion, I think, has made clear, that is certainly not the only place that it’s coming from. And the idea that somehow the whole Muslim community or the bulk of the Muslim community is being led by radicals and basically supports these people, I think, is objectively false on its face.

You know, I think that the other point, perhaps, to be made is that, you know, individuals do get radicalized. That is an interesting question. How do people who start out as relatively normal human beings come to the point of trying to murder, you know, men, women and children in massive attacks? And, of course, the same question, though, is very much a question for the kind of groups I cover, the kind of individuals I cover. How does a Jared Lee Loughner come to the point where he is willing to attempt to assassinate Gabby Giffords in Tucson, for instance? You know, how does a James von Brunn come to the point of murdering people at the Holocaust Museum a few years ago?

But I do not see anything particularly unique about the Muslim community as a kind of milieu where some tiny percentage of people get drawn into the extremely radical world. I don’t think there’s really much to be learned looking specifically at that phenomenon.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Loughner, Jared Loughner?

MARK POTOK: Well, Loughner was certainly mentally ill. I mean, I looked fairly carefully at Loughner immediately after the shooting and read an awful lot of the things he had posted on the internet. You know, they were absolutely discombobulated, and I would not argue that he was some kind of sane proponent of the political right. Nevertheless, he was mentally ill, but he somehow selected the target he selected. And I think it’s a perfectly legitimate question. You know, how did Loughner come to see Giffords as his enemy and someone who needed killing?

What I saw in his — really, his rants, were a consistent theme of “the government is the enemy.” He had a particularly strange set of writings where he talked about how the government tries to control the people through the use of English grammar. While that sounds laughable on its face, the fact is, is that there’s a well-known anti-government conspiracy theorist by the name of David Wynn Miller in Milwaukee, who has laid out precisely this idea. It’s a bizarre sort of conspiracy theory he has about how the government manipulates us through the use of language. So, I think Loughner had, you know, at least imbibed sort of shards of these ideas from the radical right. As I say, I don’t think he had any kind of consistent ideology. He seemed more mentally ill than some kind of a political animal. But nevertheless, he did get these ideas from somewhere.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned in your piece, “Why Are Peter King’s Hearings So Loathsome? Let Us Count the Ways,” two things. One is what King has said in the past, although he says he’s not targeting Muslims, who said 80 to 85 percent of American mosques are run by extremist jihadists and told a reporter, “Unfortunately, we have too many mosques in this country.” You also talked about what happened in 2009 when the Department of Homeland Security did a report that was leaked on the radical right.

MARK POTOK: That’s true. And, you know, the point I was trying to make was that the political right in this country is extremely quick to cry demonization when they feel it is they that are somehow being targeted. In 2009, a Department of Homeland Security report on the radical right and the threat in this country was leaked, and it made a couple of points that I think were absolutely right and totally legitimate. But what they included, those points included, was the idea that veterans returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq were people who the radical right was very interested in recruiting. And that was absolutely so.

After that report was leaked, the American Legion and other groups on the political right essentially went crazy and said, you know, “This is a report attacking us. It is calling all veterans potentially Timothy McVeighs. We’re being defamed merely because we’re conservatives,” and so on. So, you know, in the end, sad to say, Janet Napolitano and the administration withdrew the report, I think completely foolishly. It was a moment of political cowardice that was quite remarkable.

But in any event, my point was simply that when the right feels it’s them being attacked, they cry very loudly indeed. Now it is the right in the form of Peter King, essentially, attacking the Muslim community in the very same way and saying, you know, “What’s their problem with these perfectly legitimate hearings?”

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Mark, what’s your sense — you mentioned the upsurge of right-wing and violent attacks now with the — under the Obama administration, similar to what happened during the Clinton years, as there was an upsurge of militia groups and attacks around the country, culminating in the Oklahoma City bombing. What’s your sense of how the federal government, the Obama administration, is reacting to this upsurge?

MARK POTOK: Well, I think that law enforcement, in general, has been pretty good about this. You know, Oklahoma was very much a wake-up call for police officers around the country, many of whom were quite conservative and, you know, were not used to looking at people who are arguably Christian, you know, whites in this country, who were engaging in these kinds of attacks. So I think we’re living in a different world now.

You know, when you get to the political level — in other words, the leaders of the federal law enforcement agencies and so on — it can be different. I remember that at the end of the Bush administration, the FBI testified on a couple of occasions that the real domestic terror threat in this country was so-called eco-terrorists. And I have to say, I think that was ridiculous. You know, eco-terrorists, if that’s even a legitimate name, have killed no one. Of course, hundreds and hundreds of people in this country have been killed by proponents of the radical right.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Potok, I want to thank you for being with us, director of Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, speaking to us from Montgomery, Alabama. Thanks so much.

MARK POTOK: And thank you so much for having me.

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