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Why Don't the Feds Target White, Southern Christians Like They Do Muslims?

Law enforcement has spied on Muslim communities in ways that would have outraged Americans, had such tactics been used against Christian communities after the Oklahoma City bombing.

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There is no question that the most extreme example of such blanket, suspicion-less surveillance has been conducted by the New York City Police Department (NYPD). As  revealed by the Associated Press, the NYPD’s Intelligence Division carried out a secret surveillance program on the city’s varied Muslim communities based on the erroneous belief that their religion makes them more susceptible to violent radicalization.

The program, which continues today, looks something like this, according toMapping Muslims: “rakers,” or undercover officers, are sent into neighborhoods to identify “hot spots” -- mosques, schools, restaurants, cafes, halal meat shops, hookah bars -- and told to chat up people to “gauge sentiment,” while setting up “listening posts.” “Crawlers,” or informants, are then recruited and sent to infiltrate mosques and religious events.  They are ordered to record what imams and congregants say and take note of who attended services and meetings.

These crawlers are encouraged to initiate “create and capture” conversations with their targets, bringing up terrorism or some other controversial topic, recording the response, and then sharing it with the NYPD. The intelligence unit also went  mobile, checking out and infiltrating American-Muslim student groups from Connecticut to New Jersey and even as far away as Pennsylvania.

When news of the NYPD’s spying program broke, it shattered trust within the city’s Muslim communities, giving rise to general suspicion and fraying community ties of all sorts. This naturally raises the question: How many terrorism plots were identified and disrupted thanks to this widespread and suspicionless surveillance program?  The answer: none.

Worse, the chief of the NYPD Intelligence Division  admitted in sworn testimony last summer that the Muslim surveillance program did not even generate a single criminal lead. The incredibly invasive, rights-eroding program was a complete bust, a total waste of the resources of the New York City Police Department.

And that’s without even considering what is surely its most harmful aspect: the likelihood that, at least in the short term, it has caused irreparable damage to the Muslim community’s trust in the police. Surveillance, concludes theMapping Muslims report, “has stifled constitutionally protected activity and destroyed trust between American Muslim communities and the agencies charged with protecting them.”

When people fear the police, tips dry up, potentially making the community less safe. This is important, especially given that the Muslim-American community has helped prevent, depending on whose figures you use, from 21%-40% of all terrorism plots associated with Muslims since 9/11. That’s grounds for cooperation, not alienation: a lesson that would have been learned by a police department with strong ties to and trust in the community.

Numbers May Not Lie, But They Sure Can Be Ignored

The idea that American law enforcement’s mass surveillance of Muslim communities is a necessary, if unfortunate, counterterrorism tool rests with the empirically false notion that American Muslims are more prone to political violence than other Americans.

This is simply not true.

According to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START),  right-wing terrorists perpetrated 145 “ideologically motivated homicide incidents” between 1990 and 2010. In that same period, notes START, “al Qaeda affiliates, al Qaeda-inspired extremists, and secular Arab Nationalists committed 27 homicide incidents in the United States involving 16 perpetrators or groups of perpetrators.”

Last November, West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center published  a reporton America’s violent far-right extremists. Its numbers were even more startling than START’s. “The consolidated dataset,” writes report author Arie Perliger, “includes information on 4,420 violent incidents that occurred between 1990 and 2012 within U.S. borders, and which caused 670 fatalities and injured 3,053 people.” Perliger also found that the number of far-right attacks had jumped 400% in the first 11 years of the 21st century.

 
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