This week, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) will hold long-awaited hearings in the House Homeland Security Committee on Muslim cooperation with law enforcement in terror investigations. King pretty much has his mind made up before entering the hearing room – he believes that Muslim-Americans haven’t aided enough in investigations against extremism, despite a long record to the contrary. The point seems to be to treat Muslims as somehow disloyal to the United States and effectively collaborating with those who would do the country harm. It hearkens back to an era of McCarthyism, and represents a break with the perspective of even George W. Bush, who was more careful not to publicly scapegoat Muslim-Americans after 9/11.

About 500 people from interfaith and community groups held a rally in New York City yesterday to protest the King hearings. And now the Obama Administration has jumped into this debate as well.

Muslim Americans are not part of the terrorism problem facing the U.S. — they are part of the solution, a top White House official said Sunday at a Washington-area mosque [...]

(Deputy National Security Adviser Denis) McDonough said that instead of condemning whole communities, the U.S. needs to protect them from intimidation.

McDonough spoke to an interfaith forum at a Northern Virginia mosque known for its longtime relationship and cooperation with the FBI. The executive director of the center, Imam Mohamed Magid, also spoke, as did speakers from a local synagogue and a Presbyterian church.

King, who has been backtracking for weeks after the negative fallout from his hearings, tried to almost take credit for McDonough’s speech, saying it reflected his views. That’s a very generous interpretation of the two viewpoints.

It’s good that the White House wants to ensure the Muslim-American community that they will not be singled out or stigmatized by their government. And King’s backpedaling has led to Rep. Keith Ellison, a Muslim, becoming a witness at the hearings, along with other members of the Muslim community. So there will be a balance there.

But let’s not let King, who has been beating this drum for months now, off the hook so easily. I believe you can draw a direct line between King’s inferences of Muslim collaboration with terrorist activity and incidents like this one in Sacramento just a few days ago:

Police said Saturday that they don’t know why someone gunned down two men – frail from heart attacks and advancing years – as they slowly ambled through a quiet Elk Grove neighborhood during their daily afternoon walk.

Surinder Singh, 67, died Friday afternoon on the sidewalk along East Stockton Boulevard near Geneva Pointe Drive. Gurmej Atwal, his 78-year-old friend, was shot twice in the chest. His family said he was in critical but stable condition.

In a statement released late Saturday, Elk Grove Police Chief Robert Lehner called on witnesses to come forward and said, “We have no evidence to indicate there was a hate or bias motivation for this crime; however, the obvious Sikh appearance of the men, including the traditional Dastar headwear and lack of any other apparent motive, increasingly raise that possibility.”

Like it or not, these fear tactics can have a impact on those who are impressionable and easily stirred to anger. That’s not to say that Peter King pulled a trigger in Sacramento on Friday. It means that years of needless demonizing doesn’t just go into the ether. So if the White House wants to use their position to argue against this kind of scapegoating, that can only be positive.

However, while they’re at it, they can explain why their support for tolerance and the rule of law when it comes to Muslims ends when it comes to a private first class who hasn’t even been convicted of a crime or tried in court. The Bush Administration could never get the Muslim community past the shame of Abu Ghraib; it works no better when the victim is white and sitting naked in his cell in a military brig at Quantico. Human dignity and human rights are universal values, and rather than just talk about protecting people from intimidation and scapegoating, this Administration needs to act on it.