By Tom Parker, Policy Director for Terrorism, Counterterrorism and Human Rights
Yesterday, with the opening of the 112th Congress, Representative Peter King (R-NY) succeeded Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MI) as the Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee.
In the past few weeks Congressman King, no stranger to exaggerated sensationalism, has attracted a great deal of media attention for labeling Wikileaks a terrorist organization (a stretch by any definition of the term) and calling for the prosecution of the New York Times under the Espionage Act.
Congressman King has said that his first order of business as Chair will be to hold hearings on Muslim-American radicalization.
This has caused more than a little concern in the Muslim community since King made headlines in 2004 by channeling Senator Joseph McCarthy in an interview with Sean Hannity in which he claimed - without any apparent factual basis whatsoever - that 85% of the mosques in America were controlled by "Islamic fundamentalists" and went on to describe the members of these mosques as "an enemy living among us."
I suppose we shouldn't be terribly surprised by Congressman King's antics, as he has never been particularly good at spotting real terrorists. King was a high profile supporter of the Provisional IRA for almost twenty years telling a political meeting in Nassau County, New York, in 1982:
"We must pledge ourselves to support those brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry."
In the course of more than three decades of violence in Northern Ireland the Provisional IRA is variously estimated to have killed between 1,700 and 1,900 people and to have injured thousands more.
These attacks included the bombing of a Remembrance Sunday (Veteran's Day) Service in Enniskillen in which eleven members of the congregation died, the bombing of a MacDonald's in Warrington that killed two small children, and the bombing of the London department store Harrods, which claimed six lives, including that of a United States citizen.
In addition to pursuing its armed struggle against the British government, the Provisional IRA has been involved in racketeering, extortion and drug trafficking. Former IRA members have been identified training operatives of other foreign terrorist organizations, notably the Colombian group FARC.
Congressman King finally drifted apart from the Provisional IRA, not because he had an epiphany about their use of violence or about their criminal activity, but because of the "knee-jerk anti-Americanism" demonstrated by his Irish contacts in the aftermath of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, Congressman King has not broken entirely with all his former friends. In 2008 he lent his support to former IRA man Pol Brennan who was seeking bail while he fought a deportation hearing in Texas.
Brennan had been sentenced to more than sixteen years in prison in 1977 after being caught in possession of explosives and firearms in Northern Ireland. Brennan escaped in 1983 and went to ground in the United States. He was ultimately deported.
I have no criticism of King's support for a United Ireland, the political landscape in Northern Ireland is complex and all of the parties involved share some of the blame for the decades of violence that have ravaged the province. The Congressman is, of course, free to speak out in support of any political cause that takes his fancy.
However, as the survivor of an IRA bomb attack in Central London, I do have a real problem with his support for terrorism.
That problem is simple: if your test for whether or not terrorist violence is acceptable is whether or not you agree with the cause that it furthers, you will never have the moral authority to condemn such acts when they are carried out by others. The use of violence against innocents must be wrong in whatever form it takes. Take any other position and you are open, as Congressman King undoubtedly is, to charges of hypocrisy.
There is no way to varnish the fact that for twenty years Congressman King consistently supported a violent armed group that murdered men, women and children in pursuit of its political goals. It is also worth noting that those victims were citizens of America's closest ally in the struggle against Al Qaeda.
These are not frivolous times and rabble-rousers do not make good statesman.
Congressman King seems more inclined to chase headlines, than to tackle the difficult challenges we face with the nuance and sophistication they require. This more than anything surely raises the question of whether or not he is a fit Chairman for the House Homeland Security Committee.