The brief // by Ben FrankelOn bangs and whimpers

Published 11 March 2011

Yesterday was the first day of the congressional hearings on Islamic radicalization in America; it is already clear that the hearings will not become important and memorable like the Army-McCarthy Hearings of the early 1950s, the Fulbright hearings of the late 1960s, or the Church Hearings of the mid-1970s; in today’s political climate, nothing can bring a conversation to an end more quickly than accusing a public figure of engaging in stereotyping ethnic or religious minorities, of ethnic profiling and scapegoating — whether or not such accusations have any merit; the Democrats on the committee went on the offensive, painting the hearings as illegitimate and making the hearings themselves the focus of attention and debate; the tone and body language of many of the Republicans on the committee showed that they grasped that this was a no-winner for them; yes, they denied charges by Democrats that this was a case of witch hunting and stereotyping, but they acted as if they were simply hoping to ride out the hearings without doing anything too disastrous

Here are quick comments on a two things that caught our eye this week.

1. The hearings: on bangs and whimpers

Yesterday, the House Homeland Security Committee held the first session of the hearings on Islamic radicalization in the United States. We should note what did not happen. 

There were no overt demagoguery and irresponsible ranting as there were sixty years ago, when a drunk, unshaven senator from Wisconsin would say, “Point of order, Mr. Chairman,” and “I hold in my hand a list of communists in high position in …”

There was relatively little discussion of Islamic radicalization in America. Instead, the hearings themselves, and their very legitimacy, became the focus of discussion. Representative Peter King and the Republicans on the committee (we note: mostly white males) spent an inordinate amount of time and effort arguing that the hearings were legitimate, were not a case of stereotyping Muslims in America, and were not an example of ethnic profiling.

The Democrats on the committee (overwhelmingly women, African Americans, Hispanic, or Asian) argued that only white males could make such an argument since they never experienced what it meant to be a victim of such profiling and stereotyping.

Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, recounted the heartfelt story of a Muslim American first responder killed in the 9/11 attacks, saying, “Mohammad Salman Hamdani was a fellow American who gave his life for other Americans.” Ellison implored the committee to stop assigning “collective blame” based on renegade individuals, which he said is at the “heart of stereotyping and scape-goating.” Other Democrats agreed, talking of the need to explore all homegrown threats, not just from the Muslim community.

Some congressional hearings made history – even changed it. Three such hearings come to mind:

— The McCarthy hearings in the early 1950s quickly deteriorated into a witch-hunt resembling show trials in totalitarian countries. The spell of fear and suspicion McCarthy had cast on the nation was finally broken on 9 June 1954, when Joseph Welch, a counselor to the U.S. Army in the Army-McCarthy Hearings (McCarthy accused the Army of being controlled by communists), confronted McCarthy directly. In front of millions of Americans (the hearings were televised live), Welch said: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness… You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” McCarthy’s spell was broken, and