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For Rep. Peter King, fighting terrorism is not just another policy interest. The New York Republican is a self-described fanatic, obsessed with putting an end to the terrorist threat.
“This has always superseded all issues. It comes before party or re-election” King said in an interview Monday, a day after President Barack Obama announced that the long-hunted al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan. “This is something that I am absolutely fixated on.”
In part, King said, his single-minded focus is because of the nature of the threat.
“It’s very seldom that you really get an opportunity to get involved in an issue that could determine the fate of the country,” he said.
But the issue also is personal for the life-long New Yorker whose father was a New York City police officer. He has felt the pain of his suburban district: More than 150 of his constituents lost their lives in the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. The devastating event also hits home with the Long Islander’s staff members, who lost family members.
In the New York delegation that has carried a heavy share of the nation’s burden of grief and anger over 9/11, King has been especially vocal and involved. He lobbied to become chairman of the Homeland Security Committee the last time Republicans controlled Congress and has been visible on many issues related to 9/11, from laws related to insurance against terrorist attacks to securing compensation for victims.
“Part of the great thing about Chairman King is he puts his heart and soul into this issue,” freshman Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) said. “It’s not a job, it’s a passion.”
Grimm, a former Marine and FBI agent, said bin Laden’s death is also a reminder of why it’s so important to have someone who is so focused leading the Homeland Security Committee.
“He’s someone who lives and breathes for the security of the United States. He has the experience and the level head, from the Congressional point of view,” Grimm said.
As King has become a central leader on terrorism during this Congress at the helm of the Homeland Security Committee, he has faced personal threats. In March, he beefed up his personal security after receiving threatening phone calls before a controversial committee hearing called “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response.”
King declined to go into details of the incidents, but he confirmed that he continues to have 24-hour police protection.
Despite his fixation on terrorism, King said bin Laden wasn’t on his radar when Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, left him an urgent message Sunday evening. King thought the call might be about some new terrorist plot in Yemen or an update on terrorists coming across the border.
When the two men finally spoke, King recalled that Leiter began the conversation by saying, “This is a call that is going to mean a lot to you and your constituents.”
While King acknowledged that bin Laden’s death was a “major victory” in the fight against terrorism, he said the war is hardly over.
King already has several hearings on extremism planned for this summer.
“This is a major chapter in a long book,” he said. “This gives us an opportunity in this moment of confusion to make real inroads against al-Qaida.”
For Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. military forces delivered a cathartic release and a sense of emotional closure on behalf of their constituents, many of whom suffered more directly from the terrorist attacks than any other group of Americans.
Schumer knew people who died that day — a man he played basketball with in high school and a businessman who had been supportive of his political career in its early days — and it was clear Monday that he took satisfaction in bin Laden’s death. Schumer said the fact that bin Laden remained out of the reach of American justice for nearly a decade following the attacks felt particularly “galling” to New Yorkers.
“When you talk to the families of those who were lost, they would say it just galls them that bin Laden is still alive. A few of them told me they think about him every day,” a visibly emotional Schumer said Monday in an interview. “There will still be a hole in the hearts; their loved ones will never come back; but at least some justice was done.”
No state delegation can claim more concern or attention to the war on terrorism. But Schumer and Menendez — and their fellow New York and New Jersey Members — say they feel an acute sense of responsibility to keep their constituents safe, given that New York City continues to be among terrorists’ major targets.
Schumer said the first thing he did Monday was telephone the head of the New York FBI office and the head of Homeland Security counterterrorism to discuss any potential terrorist threats.
Like King, Menendez said the need to be vigilant and strongly prosecute the war on terror must continue, although Sunday’s action might be viewed as a turning point that tipped the scales in favor of the U.S.
“While we may have cut off the head of the snake, the body is still alive,” Menendez said in an interview. “This doesn’t end our challenge.”
Jessica Brady contributed to this report.