On Monday, Peter King, the longest-serving Republican congressman from New York, who once told immigrant organizers that they should "thank God for ICE agents" and urged Donald Trump to establish a national surveillance program for Muslims in the United States, announced that he would not seek re-election following his 14th term in the House of Representatives.
Almost immediately, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer took the opportunity to express his admiration and respect for the Long Island congressman. "Peter King stood head & shoulders above everyone else," Schumer wrote on Twitter. "He’s been principled & never let others push him away from his principles. He’s fiercely loved America, Long Island, and his Irish heritage and left a lasting mark on all 3. I will miss him in Congress & value his friendship."
A celebration of King's career in politics is a celebration of Islamophobia and hypocrisy—and Schumer's praise of him shows how far backward the Democratic Party leadership is willing to bend in the name of bipartisanship. The sooner this kind of liberal civility and politesse is relegated to the dustbin of history, the better.
King held some moderate positions, for instance supporting gun control legislation, but was largely a right-wing ideologue with a particular fixation on Muslims. In 2011, as chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, King held a series of hearings on what had become something of an obsession for him following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001: the alleged radicalization of Muslims in the United States."I saw the Muslim-American community not responding the way that they should have, covering up for al Qaeda, when they tried to blame it on Jews or the FBI," King told CNN at the time. "I couldn't believe what I was hearing. These people—I had known them for years, I had their relatives interning in my office, I had gone to weddings and dinners of leaders in the Muslim-American community—and the same people that I had known, I hear them saying its not al Qaeda, it's the FBI. I couldn't believe it."
In 2004, he published a novel called Vale of Tears about an Irish-American congressman from New York who discovers a terror plot organized by Muslims living in his district. "You write about what you know," King said.
The surveillance program that he encouraged President Trump to institute was to be modeled on the one established by the NYPD, operated by the now-disbanded Demographics Unit. According to one report by the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition, the program created "a pervasive climate of fear and suspicion, encroaching upon every aspect of [Muslims'] individual and community life." In six years, the surveillance program turned up no terrorism leads and triggered no terrorism investigations.
King's Islamophobia is further complicated his earlier support for the Irish Republican Army, the paramilitary group that killed hundreds of civilians in car bombs and other violent operations over the course of decades. "We must pledge ourselves to support those brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry," King told demonstrators at a 1982 rally on Long Island. (At the time, he was Nassau County comptroller.) "If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation, it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the IRA for it," he said later.
Whatever King might have learned from his engagement with the IRA and the peace process that led to the Good Friday Agreement was ultimately obscured by his chauvinism. "I understand why people who are misinformed might see a parallel," King, son of an NYPD cop and grand-nephew of an IRA member, told the New York Times at the time of the 2011 hearings. "The fact is, the IRA never attacked the United States. And my loyalty is to the United States." (Actually, an American citizen was killed in a 1983 attack.)
"Obviously they have had many disagreements on many issues, especially on immigration, his attitude toward Muslims, and women’s rights, which is why Sen. Schumer endorsed his opponent last year and has worked tirelessly to turn that district blue," a spokesperson for the minority leader said. They also worked closely on such things like delivering much-needed federal aid to New York communities after 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy, and on Universal background checks legislation, which Rep. King was the lead Republican on."
Still, the Senate's top Democrat's nod to King's "friendship" seems out of step with a Democratic base that sees the New York congressman's "anti-terrorism" efforts as little more than veiled racism and Islamophobia. For many progressives, Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar's send-off sounded better:
It is perhaps appropriate that King should announce his retirement just days after the passing of Noel Ignatiev, author of How the Irish Became White. "Instead of the Irish love of liberty warming America, the winds of republican slavery blew back to Ireland," Ignatiev wrote of the failed attempts to link the Irish struggle for liberation with the abolition of slavery in the United States. "The Irish had faded from Green to white, bleached by, as [Irish abolitionist Daniel] O'Connell put it, something in the 'atmosphere' of America."
That poisonous atmosphere endures; in it, both Peter King and Chuck Schumer breathe deeply.
Update 11/11: This article has been updated to include comment from Schumer's office, which was received after publication.