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Peter King, Witch Hunter

Peter King is the envy of (a) former Senator Joseph McCarthy and (b) the folks in Salem MA who were looking for, respectively, communists and witches. It was a hard task that they each attacked with persistence and fortitude. It was hard because to the untutored eye, witches and communists look just like the rest of us, making it difficult to distinguish them from the general population. Nonetheless, the folks in Salem and Joe were diligent in their efforts. There was, of course, always a possibility that the person identified as a witch or a communist was not in fact a witch or a communist but there was also the possibility that he or she was, and that made it all worthwhile from the inquisitors’ points of view.

The Salem Witch Trials took place in 1692 and 1693. More than 150 people were arrested and accused of witchcraft and a number were convicted. Witchcraft was, as one would expect, a capital offense, and several of those convicted were hanged. With the benefit of hindsight one can safely assume that most, if not all of those hanged, were not witches but as in all matters involving capital punishment, learning that the executed were innocent after they have been hanged makes very little difference to the executed and has never been considered by Americans to be a reason to eliminate the death penalty.

One of the next hunts for witches occurred in the 1950s and the man who served as the official huntsman was Senator Joe McCarthy. The senator’s goal was to identify Communists in the United States. The fact that the object of the hunt could not readily be identified did nothing to deter McCarthy, who made accusations against all manner of people, many of whom were not communists but might as well have been since their careers were irreparably harmed by the accusations. A ruined career was better than being hanged but was nonetheless not a very good outcome. The newest hunter of citizens he believes unworthy of their citizenship is Peter King, a congressman from New York. He has targeted a group that is going to be easy for him to identify-Muslims. Some, though not all, can be identified by their attire or by physical characteristics.

Mr. King is one of the beneficiaries of the Republican take over of the House of Representatives of the U.S. Congress and has been named chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. That committee deals with such things as border security and transportation security and, in addition, has the power to conduct investigations. Its investigative authority has excited Chairman King. He intends to seek out Muslims and find out why they are being such a problem.

Mr. King did not pull the idea of having hearings out of the same air that produced fictional witches and communists. According to Mr. King “When I meet with law enforcement, they are constantly telling me how little cooperation they get from Muslim leaders [when conducting terror investigations.]” By conducting these investigations Mr. King presumably will figure out how to force Muslims to cooperate with law enforcement authorities. In an article in Newsday he said he would “drive the public debate on Islamic radicalization. These hearings will be a step in that direction. It’s what democracy is all about.” He may look to some of the techniques used in Salem such as placing heavy rocks on the person being investigated until the person says what the rock placer wants him to say or dies, whichever comes first. Alternatively he can adopt the methods used by Senator McCarthy who would simply state that he was holding lists of communists employed in various parts of the government without sharing the lists with others.

Responding to criticism of his planned hearings Mr. King said it was OK with him if people called him a bigot for undertaking the hearings. Those criticizing him, he said, were simply uttering, “politically correct nonsense.” I am sure Mr. King treasures civil liberties even if preserving them means riding roughshod over them. That is the price that must be paid.

Muslims are, of course, not pleased at the prospect of the King inquisition. Rep. Keith Elison (D-Minn) the only Muslim member of Congress explains: “We need to make sure that we stand for civil liberties, so we can deprive people like Osama bin Laden of the claim that Muslims are poorly treated in America. The United States is not at war with Islam.”

America is not at war with Islam but if Mr. King’s hearings go as planned, it is a safe bet that lots of Muslims will believe that Mr. King and probably the Republican party are at war with Islam. After all, the hearings were his idea and the Republican party gave him the forum.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached at: brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.

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