NYPD investigation tests clash between freedom, security
The New York Police Department’s effort to secretly monitor Muslim college students and businesses is the latest test of how far law enforcement should go to intercept potential terrorist attacks in the United States.
The NYPD Demographics Unit was exposed recently in the media. The team deployed plainclothes officers, typically of Arab descent, into Muslim neighborhoods to photograph mosques and catalog where Muslims congregate, including restaurants, grocery stores, Internet cafes and travel agencies, according to the Associated Press.
The NYPD has defended its tactics, calling them legal and necessary.
The effort hit home when it was revealed that police were monitoring Muslim student organizations and websites affiliated with the University at Buffalo.
University officials said they were not aware of any surveillance being done by outside police agencies and “would not voluntarily cooperate with a request” to spy on students. They said UB supports the values of freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of religion, and a reasonable expectation of privacy.
The AP cites an NYPD intelligence report from 2009 that described a trip by three of its officers to Buffalo, where they met with a high-ranking member of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office and agreed “to develop assets jointly in the Buffalo area, to act as listening posts within the ethnic Somalian community.”
Here is where the road divides.
It is one thing to read information readily available online and research activities and events related to an individual interest group or culture. People who play fantasy football do that every day from August to January, and no one investigates them.
But the NYPD and law enforcement agencies working in concert with it singled out one part of our diverse society for additional scrutiny. Is that discriminatory? Or are they simply conducting an investigation based on where they are most likely to find a problem?
The Erie County Sheriff’s Office issued its own statement as the fallout spread like wildfire. Officials said, “Some of the most dangerous Western Al Qaeda-linked/inspired terrorists since 9/11 were radicalized and/or recruited at Muslim Student Associations. As a result, the NYPD deemed it prudent to get a better handle on what was occurring at MSA’s via open sources like websites.”
Stalking Muslims at places of religious assembly or cultural activity is profiling, pure and simple. It is taking a general fear of future terrorist attacks to an uncomfortable level.
Earlier this month, Nauman Tahir of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Buffalo said the NYPD surveillance is a matter of national security and part of the department’s duty in making sure all Americans are safe.
“If you don’t have anything to hide, there’s no problem in police spying on you. I don’t have any problem with them spying on me. And I’m sure I don’t have anything to hide,” he told WGRZ-TV.
“Spying” is a dirty word in a free society. Attorney John Whitehead takes his criticism to a new low in a recent column penned for the Rutherford Institute, an organization of which he is president.
“The civil liberties of all those, including tourists, who walk the New York streets, particularly if they belong to ethnic and religious minorities, are being trampled upon in order to maintain an illusion of safety,” he wrote.
The two sides of the issue could not be farther apart. There are elements within the specific cultural group in question that have a track record of committing acts of terrorism and harboring those who do. However, that is not to say that individuals affiliated with other cultural and religious groups are never associated with terrorism. We saw violence dealt out by religious extremists in Waco, Texas, in 1983. In that case, the extremist group had been infiltrated by an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. It would be safe to describe the agent as a “spy.”
The NYPD investigation was developed in a city far too familiar with being the target of extremists. I would not want to be responsible for telling anyone that I could have prevented a crime but hesitated – even for a second.
(David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York. He can be reached at dsher firstname.lastname@example.org.)