Editor's note: CNN contributor William J. Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush. Bennett is the author with Seth Leibsohn of the upcoming book "The Fight of Our Lives: Knowing the Enemy, Speaking the Truth, and Choosing to Win the War Against Radical Islam."
(CNN) -- If a presidential candidate running for office in 2012, or for that matter in years past (say, 2004 or 2008), said "there is no radical Muslim threat in America," it would immediately disqualify that candidate. It would be a worse gaffe than President Gerald Ford saying, "There is no Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe."
The candidate would be seen as unserious, out of touch, not up to the task or just plain wrong. The campaign would be over. And yet, for the weeks and months leading up to the hearing that took place at the House Homeland Security Committee on Thursday, critics have cried foul.
Chairman Peter King -- and the whole notion of such hearings -- was labeled hysterical, overblown, McCarthyite and even racist. Editorials and columns appearing in publications ranging from The New York Times to the Los Angeles Times denounced the hearings.
This past week, a group of 50 liberal organizations wrote a letter saying the hearings would have "no productive outcome in singling out a particular community for examination in what appears to be little more than a political show-trial." This before the hearings even took place. This was no show-trial -- no witnesses were compelled (or subpoenaed) to appear, and two of the three Muslims who testified at Thursday's hearing agreed with the purpose of it.
The hearing, titled, "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response," was, indeed, both overdue and enlightening.
Let's examine the actual cause for the hearings. Richard Cohen wrote in his syndicated column -- echoing much the same criticism we have seen from the likes of Bob Herbert of The New York Times and John Esposito of Georgetown University -- that King was "setting a dangerous precedent," and that "the government has no business examining any peaceful religious group because a handful of adherents have broken the law."
As evidence for his piece, Cohen wrote that the timing was "awkward" for King and cited a recent study showing "a drop in attempted or actual terrorist activity by American Muslims -- 47 perpetrators and suspects in 2009, 20 in 2010."
What Cohen did not report is more interesting -- and something King probably knows, even if Cohen didn't disclose it: That mere "20" is still higher than the "average of 14 per year." And let us be clear: We are not talking about 14, 20, or 47 murders, we are talking about 14, 20, and 47 terrorist efforts aimed at killing as many people as possible. Hopefully, we all still remember what 19 terrorists can do, and we know from the study Cohen points us to that some of the plots identified there include the targeting of subways, airlines, shopping centers and Times Square -- places of mass occupancy, for the purpose of mass casualty.
Take just two examples of terrorists radicalized in America: 1) Faisal Shahzad. Had his bomb in Times Square gone off, it could have been "devastating," and Shahzad himself said he had hoped to kill at least 40 people in that explosion and then set off another one two weeks later. 2) Najibullah Zazi. His plot, had it succeeded before he was arrested, would have been "three coordinated bomb attacks on the Manhattan subway during rush hour," and it could have "eclipsed the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which killed nearly 200 people." That's just "two."
One last point about magnitude and blame: Cohen states "the threat from non-Muslims" in America is "greater" than the threat from Muslims. This is absolutely true -- when talking about every conceivable threat that doesn't include terrorism. The study he approvingly cites actually states, "it is clear that Muslims are engaging in terrorism at a greater rate than non-Muslims."
To Cohen and other critics of the hearings, let us remind: There are a lot of hearings in Congress. And they have ranged in topic from the threat from white separatist groups to unregulated fishing. Is radical Islam in America not at least as concerning or worthy of investigation?
If one community is engaging in terrorism "at a greater rate" than the rest of the community; and if we are at war with or on the defensive against such terrorism; and if the secretary of homeland security states, The terrorist threat facing our country "may be at its most heightened state" since 9/11; and if the attorney general can say that "homegrown terror" is "one of the things that keeps me up at night," why should there not be 10 hearings a year?
One last point as to why, perhaps, our civilian political leadership is now voicing so much concern. It's a point most Americans do not know, but it is eye-popping: Al Qaeda is now practically an American-led franchise. The top three operational leaders of the top three al Qaeda organizations (al Qaeda in East Africa, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al Qaeda Central) are all homegrown terrorists, from America, either born or naturalized here.
Let us dispense with the nonsense that the U.S. government or the House Committee on Homeland Security is targeting or discriminating against a minority. As I point out in a book I have coming out later this month, there is one reason, and one reason only, that any of us speak of Islam in the context of terrorism, even as we know that most Muslims are not terrorists: When an adherent of the Muslim faith engages in an act of terrorism, he explains (or shouts out) that he is acting in the name of Islam.
As the dean of Islamic and Arabic studies Bernard Lewis has put it:
"Most Muslims are not fundamentalists, and most fundamentalists are not terrorists, but most present-day terrorists are Muslims and proudly identify themselves as such. Understandably, Muslims complain when the media speak of terrorist movements and actions as 'Islamic' and ask why the media do not similarly identify Irish and Basque terrorists and terrorism as 'Christian.' The answer is simple and obvious -- they do not describe themselves as such. The Muslim complaint is understandable, but it should be addressed to those who make the news, not to those who report it."
Understanding this point is the great task just now, and it requires the kind of national conversations the hearing this week hopefully commenced.
King's hearing answered a lot, but it left open the need to investigate and ask yet many more questions, the kinds of questions too many have not been asking. So, rather than denounce such learning experiences, shouldn't we actually have more of them?
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.