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Republican Rep. Peter King of New York, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, gavels to order the first in a series of hearings on radicalization in the American Muslim community.
A Capitol Hill hearing about Islamic radicalization in America became a debate within a debate Thursday, as members of a House panel clashed over the message being sent by the session.
"Despite what passes for conventional wisdom in certain circles, there is nothing radical or un-American in holding these hearings," House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King (R-NY) said Thursday.
But the top Democrat on the committee, Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, said he "cannot help but wonder how propaganda about this hearing's focus on the American Muslim community will be used by those who seek to inspire a new generation of suicide bombers."
The long-anticipated hearing was preceded by days of protests — some of which are unwarranted "rage and hysteria," King said.
"Homegrown radicalization is part of al-Qaida's strategy to continue attacking the United States," King said as he opened the hearings.
Despite years of government focus on terrorism, there is no one predictable path toward violence. Homegrown terrorists have been high-school dropouts and college graduates as well, people from poor and wealthy families alike. Some studied overseas. Others were inspired over the Internet.
That has complicated government efforts to understand and head off the radicalization process. And it reduced some of Thursday's debate to a series of anecdotes: of Islamic terrorists on the one hand, and Islamic firefighters on the other.
King told The Associated Press that he had larger security details for the past few months because of an overseas threat relayed in December. Since then, round-the-clock security has been provided by the New York Police Department and the Nassau County, N.Y., police.
On Thursday, at King's request, the Capitol Police secured the congressional hearing room and surrounding areas, as well as his office.
Among the early witnesses was the first Muslim member of Congress , who broke into tears when describing the acts of a Muslim paramedic who died while trying to rescue victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) became emotional as he expressed concern that the hearings could paint an inaccurate and biased picture of Muslims in America.
Ellison, his voice shaking, spoke about Mohammad Salman Hamadi, a New York paramedic who died while responding to the attacks on the World Trade Center.
"After the tragedy, some people tried to smear his character" because of Hamadi's religious beliefs, Ellison said. "But it was only when his remains were identified that these lies were exposed.
"Mohammad Salman Hamdani was a fellow American who gave his life for other Americans. His life should not be identified as just a member of an ethnic group or just a member of a religion, but as an American who gave everything for his fellow Americans," Ellison said.
The witnesses Thursday included family members of young men who were inspired by others to go into terrorism, with deadly consequences. They told Congress that the young men were brainwashed by radical elements in the Muslim community.
Melvin Bledsoe, whose son, Carlos, is charged with killing an Army private at a recruiting station in Little Rock, Ark., testified about his son's conversion to Islam and his isolation from his family.
"Carlos was captured by people best described as hunters," Bledsoe said. "He was manipulated and lied to."
After the hearing, King again criticized what he called "the mindless hysteria" in the weeks leading up to the session.
"I am more convinced than ever that it was an appropriate hearing to hold," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.