WASHINGTON — Melvin Bledsoe, speaking in his deep Tennessee accent at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on the domestic radicalization of U.S. Muslims, said his son Carlos "was captured by people best described as hunters" after he converted to Islam.
"He was manipulated and lied to," Bledsoe said, recalling the events that he said led to his son's alleged attack on an Army recruiting station and the death of a soldier.
His testimony that his son was radicalized by Muslims in Tennessee bolstered assertions by the committee chairman, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., that more needs to be done to investigate radical U.S. Muslims and convince Islamic leaders that they must cooperate with authorities.
But prosecutors in Little Rock, Ark., where the 2009 shooting occurred, tell a different story. They think Carlos Bledsoe, now known as Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, was radicalized while in Yemen, where he spent time with extremists in jail, and they have not charged him with terrorism. Rather, he probably will go on trial later this year on a state charge of capital murder.
That dispute symbolized the divide over the hearing, the first in a series that critics of King — Democrats on the panel, as well as leading Muslim officials — said could exacerbate the problem of homegrown terrorism rather than help end it.
King blasted his critics, saying they have engaged in "paroxysms of rage and hysteria," and he vowed to continue with his inquiry, saying that "to back down would be a craven surrender to political correctness" and that there was "nothing radical or un-American" in the hearings.
"Indeed, congressional investigation of Muslim-American radicalization is the logical response to the repeated and urgent warnings which the Obama administration has been making in recent months," he said.
King quoted top Obama administration officials as attesting to the threat of homegrown terrorism, listing a half-dozen American citizens and residents accused of plotting or carrying out violence in the name of Islam since 2009.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca testified about his efforts to build bonds with the Islamic community. He joined the Democrats in warning against narrowly focusing on one religion. And he cited new studies that say there have been 77 terror plots by "domestic, non-Muslim perpetrators" since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, compared with only 41 by "both domestic and international Muslim perpetrators."
Baca said that soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, many Muslim leaders and organizations in Southern California promptly offered to work with police to help ferret out other potential terrorists.
One committee member, Rep. Chip Cravaack, R-Minn., questioned Baca about his department's interaction with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR. "You are aware this is a Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood entity," Cravaack said, in one of the more theatrical confrontations.
"No, I'm not aware of that," Baca replied.
"Basically, you're dealing with a terrorist organization," Cravaack continued, citing an FBI report from a 1993 meeting of Hamas members and a pair of CAIR founders. "They might be using you, sir, to implement their goals."
"If the FBI has something to charge CAIR with," Baca replied testily, "bring those charges forward and try them in court."
Cravaack also used the hearing to call for efforts to counter what he described as the threat of sharia, or Islamic law, in the United States.
As the session wore on, both sides on the panel loudly evoked their patriotism. Some waved pocketbook copies of the Constitution; others read its preamble or excerpts from the Declaration of Independence.
Democrats complained the hearing too narrowly targeted the Islamic faith. They likened the session to an old-fashioned religious witch hunt, or worse.
"This hearing is playing into al-Qaida right now," charged Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who said it could become a new recruitment tool for the terrorist organization. "It is diminishing soldiers that are on the front line that are Muslim," she said, "and those who lost their lives."
She and others wanted to know why the committee was not taking a broader look at extremism and also investigating white hate groups, the Ku Klux Klan or even Catholic priests accused of molesting children.
Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat and one of two Muslims in the House, took on the role of witness to directly challenge King. He vehemently objected to King's approach, saying individuals are responsible for instances of terrorism.
"When you assign their violent actions to the entire community, you assign collective blame to the whole group. This is the very heart of stereotyping and scapegoating,'' Ellison said.
At one point, Ellison broke into tears as he described how Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a 23-year-old paramedic, police cadet and Muslim-American, responded to the blown-out World Trade Center.
"After the tragedy," Ellison said, "some people tried to smear his character only because of his Islamic faith. Some people spread false rumors and speculated that he was in league with the attackers because he was a Muslim. But it was only when his remains were identified that those lies were exposed."
But Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., deflected arguments that Congress in the past has not taken on other narrow investigations. He said he personally has been on panels that reviewed Nazi war criminals, the World War II relocation of Japanese-Americans and unsolved civil rights murders.
"My point," he said, "is that today we are looking at another specific problem and trying to deal with it."
The committee also heard testimony from Abdirizak Bihi, an American Somali leader in Minneapolis whose nephew was one of a group of young men who were radicalized in this country, then traveled to Somalia to join the unrest there. In June 2009, the nephew, Burhan Hassan, was shot in the head and killed there.
Afterward, Bihi said, the local mosque didn't apologize or explain how or why it turned the group against the United States.
"All those brainwashed and recruited young men …,'' Bihi lamented.
Information from McClatchy-Tribune Newspapers, the New York Times, the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal was used in this report.