Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Security?

 It keeps coming. Week after week; month after month. Reports are uncovering new evidence of the New York Police Department spying on the Muslim community: undercover personnel were sent to mosques, college campuses, student group meetings, retreats, and restaurants, to observe and report on everyday activities and conversations without any reason to believe wrongdoing by the community members. While civil rights groups and Muslim communities have joined forces to fight the growing power of law enforcement, the response from the NYPD is startling. The department claims the legality of its actions while its lawyers deny the existence of any program specifically targeting Muslims.

 The issues of ethnic and racial profiling extend beyond spying on Muslims. The controversial ‘stop-and-frisk’ practice that has rendered African American and Latino men ‘guilty until proven innocent’ by the NYPD has also long been opposed. The recent court ruling by a U.S. District Court in New York, which declared the policy a violation of an individual’s constitutional rights, has given strength to the case against the NYPD’s spying program. The struggle, however, has only just begun. The NYPD has the law on its side: as reported by the AP, the department has declared mosques “terrorism organizations” as part of its post-9/11 “terrorism enterprise investigations” (TEI). This has given law enforcement virtually unlimited authority to monitor not only a mosque but any and every individual who attends its services. This and similar legal authorization for police activity singles out ethnic and religious minorities. Such laws would generally be considered violations of civil liberties, but under the banner of national security have become acceptable government actions.  If one were to question these actions, one’s loyalty might be scrutinized.

While the Muslim community has long been concerned with infringement on their privacy, it was not until the recent revelation of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) nation-wide surveillance of Americans that the issue of unwarranted government spying gained the attention of the rest of the country. Americans were startled not only at the scope of the surveillance but also at the very fact that their government was secretly monitoring activities of ordinary citizens without any grounds for suspicion—precisely the nature of the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslim communities. Both the NSA’s surveillance and the NYPD’s spying raise critical questions about individual liberty and civil rights in America. The two scenarios cannot be dismissed as distinct government activity occurring at different levels of the state; both target citizens despite the lack of any evidence of wrong doing. This commonality should be used as a common ground by citizens to resist unnecessary and unmerited attack on their communities.

The law seems to be insufficient to be a bulwark against injustice and a violation of rights and dignity. Too much power given to the government results in widespread indifference on the part of the people; even the law is manipulated to benefit government interest. The checks and balances, therefore, should not be left for agents within the government; it should be the responsibility of, not an option for, the people to question the government’s actions. Laws are made to protect people against violence, insecurity, and transgression (read: government). Those very laws should not be turned against the citizen in the favor of the state.