When was the last time a Congressional committee decided to investigate Americans based on their religious affiliation? I thought I knew something about our nation's history, but I admit I'm coming up empty on this one.
So it may well be that Rep. Peter King, a long-serving Long Island Republican, will treat us to something utterly new in American political life, with his hearings, beginning March 10, into the alleged "radicalization" he believes is taking place among the United States' Muslims. King has discussed his plans for months, allowing plenty of time for worry and outrage to build. Five hundred people demonstrated against the idea in Times Square on Sunday, the same day (according to The New York Times) that a White House official visited a Virginia mosque to tell an interfaith group that we in the United States don't do "guilt by association."
Still, it may have been one thing for King to disclose his plans back in November, after Republicans took control of the House in the midterm elections and he became chair of its Homeland Security Committee. But isn't there an argument that his big idea has been superceded by more recent events? Think of the popular (and secular) revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as the incomplete one in Libya.
Since January, something like 100 million people in the Arab world have been putting their lives at risk to overthrow brutal tyrannies, all in the name of wanting something a lot closer to what we Americans call freedom and popular rule. Despite various dire statements by the likes of Col. Muhammar el-Gaddafi to the contrary (and isn't he something less than a trusted source?), al Qaeda has had very little to say about this revolt, perhaps because it doesn't fit their own nefarious model.
So here we are, with populations in the Middle East and North Africa rallying to cries of freedom, human rights and self-government -- ideas prized by Americans -- and what are we doing but preparing to hold nationally publicized hearings in Congress (actually, let's say internationally publicized, this being a thoroughly connected world) into the patriotism of... American Muslims!
Does that make sense as a way to win friends and influence people abroad? Whenever those Libyan protestors, ill-equipped with weapons but very well-equipped with courage, decide to take the occasional break from battling Gaddafi's tanks and jets, they might just tune into al Jazeera to watch Representative King's hearings.
I suppose it's possible that someone among those brave fighters might know something about American political history, enough at least to recognize that we Americans have been here before. For 30 years, the House had a committee that looked into "Un-American Activites." The Senate had its own investigative arm, whose determination to track down closet Reds produced that famous question, "Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?"
Small comfort, but at least the supoenas back then did not go to people based on their religion. Where's James Madison, now that we really need him?