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A striking image of the Twin Towers burning down was a backdrop Thursday to Homeland Security Chairman Peter King’s hearing on the radicalization of Islam.
The framed photograph was shown by C-SPAN cameras just as Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who is Muslim, broke down in tears while addressing the panel. It also was prominently visible on the wall behind other witnesses who testified.
King told Roll Call that he called for the hearings to highlight what he says is a rising threat of radicalization in Muslim communities. The New York Republican bristled at suggestions that he was politicizing a sensitive topic that has been used in campaigns ever since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks nearly a decade ago.
During the hearing, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) thanked King for working to “carry on what this committee was originally established to do.”
“I thank you as well for hanging the pictures in the back of the room again, to remind us of the purpose of this committee, that we would understand that liberty and its price is eternal vigilance,” Walberg said.
A staffer for committee Democrats told Roll Call that King reinstalled the photograph when he reclaimed the gavel in January. When the Democrats were in charge, they had different 9/11 images on the walls, including one showing debris from the World Trade Center and one of firefighters at the Pentagon. Then-Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) had a different idea for art that did not include the burning Twin Towers image.
“We took it down,” the aide said.
Also on the walls when the Democrats held control were photos of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, an issue that dominated the committee for several years. The Katrina images are no longer there, the aide said. A King spokesman has not responded to a request for information.
Asra Nomani, a Muslim American activist who supports the hearings, said she was glad to see the photos hanging in the room.
“I think that’s a good thing to have a visual imagery of the outcome of the militancy we are discussing. ... We have to remember that day. That’s as clear a manifestation as any we can find” of the threat,” she said.
Medea Benjamin, an activist with the anti-war group CodePink who wore a shirt that said, “No bigotry” to Thursday’s hearings, called it “inappropriate.”
“I think it was an effort to bring an emotionally charged element into it,” she said. “It stirs up a lot of feelings, including feelings of anger, hatred, revenge, and I think if anything that Congressman King should have been looking toward solutions and not toward fanning flames of Islamophobia, which I think the hearing did.”
King has said that 9/11 has been a guiding motivator for him to pursue this issue and that his ultimate goal is to “protect America from a terrorist attack.” Though the New York attacks loomed in the background of the hearing, few lawmakers referenced them directly.
The hearings lasted for three hours as lawmakers debated whether it was appropriate to hold hearings targeting a specific faith community. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee called them a “waste of time.”
“Muslims are here cooperating,” the Texas Democrat said, referring to several Muslims on Thursday’s panel. “They are here doing what this hearing suggests they do not do.”
Republicans defended the Homeland Security chairman, saying the hearings addressed a necessary and imminent threat.
“Al-Qaida is targeting and attacking our Muslim youth,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said. “The modern Muslim is our greatest ally in fighting recruitment of Muslim youth.”
The question of whether it is appropriate to use imagery of the Twin Towers has long raged during campaign season. In 2004, some 9/11 families were angry when President George W. Bush used photos of the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center in re-election ads. Then-Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) used footage of the towers in smoke in a 2006 ad against now-Sen. Sherrod Brown (D).
On the Democratic side, Republicans complained in 2010 when Senate candidate Martha Coakley (D-Mass.) used old stock footage of the World Trade Center in an attack against Sen. Scott Brown (R).
“Using the image of a site where over 2,700 Americans died in a terrorist attack to distort Scott Brown’s position on regulating Wall Street is both distasteful and disrespectful,” a National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman complained at the time.
Ambreen Ali contributed to this report.