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Peter King Needs to Be Object Lesson in Our Failed Counter-Terrorism Approach

Back in January, I suggested that Peter King ought not be hailed for his role in the Irish peace process, but rather called out for his hypocrisy on terrorism.

Peter King would still be in prison if the US had treated his material support for terrorism as it now does, with sentences that can amount to a life sentence. Instead, the raging hypocrite is using the Congressional seat he owes, in part, to his earlier embrace of terrorism to sow bigotry and hatred–and to make the cooperation of the Islamic community, which plays a key role in identifying real extremists, more difficult.

The correct response to King’s actions is undoubtedly to point to this rank hypocrisy. Perhaps the NYT is suggesting it will do just that if King doesn’t back off his fear-mongering. But I believe it is already far too late for polite society to continue to soft-pedal this issue. It is inappropriate for a former terrorist sympathizer to head the Homeland Security Committee. And particularly when King uses that position to pull stunts like this, polite society needs to call out his hypocrisy in clear terms.

Credit where credit is due, polite society is doing that in a big way on the eve of King’s McCarthyite anti-Muslim hearings Thursday.

But it seems time to go the next step. Two people calling King out now (one a victim of an IRA attack, the other a former supporter) suggest that King ought to have a kind of insight that would help our fight against terrorism.

“King’s exactly right to say there’s a difference of approach between the I.R.A. and Al Qaeda,” said Tom Parker, a counterterrorism specialist at Amnesty International and a former British military intelligence officer. “But I personally consider both of them terrorist groups.”

Mr. Parker was at a birthday party for a friend in London in 1990 when the I.R.A. tossed a bomb onto the roof of the rented hall, a historic barracks. Many people, including Mr. Parker, were injured, but none died, by lucky chance of location and quick medical response, he said.

What troubles him, Mr. Parker said, is that Mr. King “understands the pull of ancestral ties. He took a great interest in a terrorist struggle overseas. He’s a guy who could bring real insight to this situation.” Instead, he said, “he is damaging cooperation from the greatest allies the U.S. has in counterterrorism.”

Some who have been close to Mr. King agree. Niall O’Dowd, an Irish-born New York publisher and writer who worked with him on the peace process in the 1990s, broke publicly with him Monday on his Web site,, describing Mr. King’s “strange journey from Irish radical to Muslim inquisitor.”

In Northern Ireland, Mr. O’Dowd said, they saw a Catholic community “demonized” by its Protestant and British critics and worked to bring it to the peace table. Seeing his old friend similarly “demonize” Muslims has shocked him, he said.

“I honestly feel Peter is wrong, and his own experience in Northern Ireland teaches him that,” Mr. O’Dowd said. “He’s a very honest, working-class Irish guy from Queens who’s had an amazing career. Now I see a man turning back on himself, and I don’t know why.” [my emphasis]

And I think that’s right. It is downright inappropriate to have an unapologetic terrorist sympathizer head our Committee on Homeland Security. So long as King maintains his terrorist support was justifiable but that of brown people is somehow different, he stands as a symbol of US hypocrisy on terrorism.

If King were to realize that his journey from terrorism to peace is no different than that of Muslims, he might well be able to teach his colleagues about the failures inherent in our counter-terrorism policy, particularly the approach that meets violence with even more violence, often hitting civilian bystanders.

But until he recognizes that, he is absolutely inappropriate to head Homeland Security. And that ought to be clear to polite society at this point.

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Marcy Wheeler aka Emptywheel is an American journalist whose reporting specializes in security and civil liberties.