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Living in the Grip of Vigilance

When authorities are at the ready to detonate a suspicious backpack but are also willing to shut down a Muslim surveillance program, is our level of fear justified?

Published: April 16, 2014

Crossposted from The New York Times Room for Debate

“We have never, ever yielded to fear,” said Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in a speech commemorating the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attack in Boston. But considering the level of government surveillance of U.S. citizens and exhaustive security checks at airports, it would seem that our collective anxieties shouldn’t be completely dismissed. When authorities are at the ready to detonate a suspicious backpack but are also willing to shut down a Muslim surveillance program, is our level of fear justified?

Faiza Patel and other national security experts weigh in at The New York Times Room for Debate series.

Focusing on One Group Is Wrong

By Faiza Patel

After 9/11, the United States’ biggest fear was that the attack was but the first, and that Al Qaeda stood ready to send waves of trained young men to America on suicide missions. This threat has receded. According to President Obama, the core of Al Qaeda has been “decimated.” Terrorist acts in the name of Islam, like the Boston Marathon bombing, are devastating and abhorrent. But they don’t pose the type of existential threat we imagined in 2001.

Nonetheless the surveillance apparatus that emerged in response to 9/11 continues to operate on steroids. Every day the N.S.A. vacuums up unimaginable amounts of information about our lives. The F.B.I. and the police monitor law-abiding American-Muslims without any reason to suspect them of wrongdoing. Just as the N.Y.P.D.’s unconstitutional stop-and-frisk program treated minority men as potential criminals, surveillance of Muslim communities paints followers of Islam as incipient terrorists. Such guilt by association is fundamentally contrary to our constitutional values.

Spying on American-Muslims is also counterproductive. Community cooperation is crucial to rooting out terrorism, and American-Muslims have made invaluable contributions to these efforts. But spying programs undermine trust. The N.Y.P.D.’s relationship with Muslims in New York, for example, has been badly damaged since the extent of its surveillance program became public.

Much of the information collected by dragnets has negligible counterterrorism value. New York’s Demographics Unit, which created detailed maps of where Muslims lived, prayed and ate, never generated a lead. It was just disbanded by William Bratton, the new police commissioner.

Moreover, concentrating resources on one community can blind us to other threats. A 2009 Department of Homeland Security report on right-wing extremism was suppressed in the face of political pressure. But according to a recent study, violent acts from this quarter outpace terrorism in the name of Islam. This week’s shooting at a Kansas Jewish community center drives home the message that violence can find justification in many ideologies.

The danger posed by Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism must be understood within the panoply of other threats we face – from right-wing militias to school shootings. And instead of spying on and stigmatizing American-Muslims, law enforcement should work with them to ensure our collective safety.