MANHATTAN (CN) - New York State Sen. Gregory Ball's Homeland Security hearing was predictably contentious Friday, divided between bitter allegations of anti-Muslim political grandstanding and careful political correctness.
Another side of the hearing, involving revelations of security gaps endangering police officers and the public in New York City's airports, subways and buildings, reflected threats that transcended partisanship and had little to do with religious radicalism.
Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King opened the state hearing. King drew controversy last month for his federal hearing on "Muslim radicalization," with critics accusing him of "singling out" Muslims and condemning their radicalization despite his own much-publicized sympathies for the Irish Republican Army, a designated terrorist organization.
At Ball's hearing, King took swipes at what he described as "mindless" antagonism from the press, and said he empathized with Ball.
"I am very upset and annoyed by the attacks on you," King said. "I admire you for standing up to them."
As a possible government shutdown loomed Friday, King told the panel that he would return to Washington that afternoon to urge the federal government to invest millions in the Securing the Cities Program.
Another speaker said the $40 million program, which aims to detect radiation from a dirty bomb in New York and its surrounding areas, is currently in day four of a five-day test.
A speaker from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an organization King had attacked earlier for alleged associations with a terrorism case, called for "sober discussion" rather than "fear-mongering."
"CAIR is a natural enemy of violent extremists," said Cyrus McGoldrick, representing CAIR-NY. "The Constitution is the law of this land, and CAIR likes it that way."
Seated next to him, Muslim community activist Linda Nassour complained about that Ball's hearing would include the testimony of Nonie Darwish, an author who has denied that Islam is a religion. Nassour likened the action to inviting former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke to an event on issues concerning the black community.
Darwish spoke at length about her upbringing in Cairo and the Gaza Strip, where she said she was indoctrinated to hate Jews and witnessed the murder of a servant for violating Islamic law.
As she spoke, New York State Sen. Eric Adams (D-Brooklyn), one of the seven panelists, raised a copy of the Muslim holy book and declared to applause, "The Quran is not our threat."
Darwish said that the book inspired horrific discrimination against women.
"The Quran states that sexual slavery is allowed," Darwish said. "It's in your hand right now."
Adams shot back that she was "bringing hate and poison into a diverse country."
A former captain of the New York City Police Department, Adams paid much more deference to the testimony of two representatives of police unions, who claimed that New York faced a security threat not directly related to any religious group's radicalism.
Executives from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Metropolitan Transit Authority Police Benevolent Associations testified that the 8-mile AirTrain stretch connecting subway commuters to John F. Kennedy International Airport is largely unsecured.
They also said police use antiquated radio systems that do not work in subways, certain buildings and even in a JetBlue airport terminal.
MTA Executive Vice President Michael O'Meara said that despite the failure of police radios on Sept. 11, the problem got little attention until the Department of Labor slapped the organization for violating workers' safety in 2008. The notice came with a comply order that caused more progress in updating the radios in the past two years than had been accomplished in the previous eight.
Sitting beside him, Port Authority Vice President Robert Morris handed a redacted version of his testimony, listing four sensitive security gaps in New York City, to Ball before speaking.
During his testimony, Ball had him speak about one of those points, involving airport security.
Morris said that officers stationed in Terminal 6 of JFK Airport ask him if they can get a tax write-off on their phones because they use them on duty. "An officer carries a radio in his belt, but he might as well be carrying a brick," Morris said.
He added that he attended 37 funerals after Sept. 11 because officers did not receive evacuation orders on their radios.
Adams called Morris and O'Meara's testimonies the "most important" of the hearing.
Down the hallway from Ball's hearing, New York State Sen. Bill Perkins held a concurrent press conference in which young immigrants, several carrying advanced degrees, said they plan to become lawyers, social workers and human rights activists if they can secure citizenship through a bill called the New York DREAM Act, an acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors.
Perkins said Ball has called it the "Terrorist Empowerment Act."
At Ball's hearing, Michael Cutler, a former agent of the now defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service, defended his use of the phrase "illegal alien" as a legal phrase, which he said some regard as the "N-word."
The phrase was not uttered at Perkins' hearing. Instead, multiple speakers repeated, "I am undocumented, and I am unafraid."
Perkins and the young immigrants wore graduation caps symbolizing the higher education aspirations of DREAM Act activists.
Tania, who preferred not to have her last name printed for legal reasons, explained that DREAM activists have been wearing cap and gowns since 2010, when several were arrested or participating in a sit-in at Republican Sen. John McCain's offices in Arizona.
Several activists were arrested at a similar sit-in in Georgia two days ago, Tania said. She said she holds a master's degree and works for an immigrant-led human rights organization.
Perkins said in a statement that he held his conference, which attracted far fewer attendees and only one news camera, as an explicit rebuke to Ball's terror hearings.
"Sen. Greg Ball's hearing today stands in stark contrast to the American values of respect, dignity and equality," Perkins wrote.
Ball said that, although he is only 33 years old, he is weathered enough to withstand criticism. "I understand politics," Ball said. "My skin is as thick, even as a young politician, as an Arkansas razorback."
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