America has become a surveillance state.


Most of our daily human activity is under some form of surveillance, especially by law enforcement. We have made this point in a number of previous posts (here, here, here & here).


Post 9-11 Surveillance on Muslims


In the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on New York City’s Twin Towers, the city’s police department established a wide-ranging and particularly invasive surveillance program targeting the city’s Muslim communities for monitoring. The tragic result of this program is, says the ACLU, that it “imposed an unwarranted badge of suspicion and stigma on law-abiding Muslim New Yorkers …”


In June 2013, the civil rights organization filed a lawsuit against the New York City Police Department (NYPD). The lawsuit charged that the Intelligence Division of the NYPD “ … singled out Muslim religious and community leaders, mosques, organizations, businesses, and individuals for pervasive surveillance that is not visited upon the public at large or upon institutions or individuals belonging to any other religious faith.”


Surveillance Chills First Amendment Freedoms


New Yorker Muslims naturally felt under siege by the NYPD’s spying activities which, as the ACLU’s investigation of the NYPD’s own internal documents revealed, were rooted in prejudice and designed to promote fear throughout the city’s proud, law-abiding Muslim communities. The group said the NYPD’s “ … discriminatory surveillance program has forced religious leaders to censor what they say to their congregants, limit their religious counseling, and record their sermons, for fear that their statements could be taken out of context by police officers or informants. Knowing and justifiable fear of NYPD surveillance have diminished attendance at mosques, prompted distrust of newcomers out of concern they are NYPD informants, and prevented the mosques from fulfilling their mission of serving as religious sanctuaries. Knowledge and justifiable fear of NYPD of NYPD surveillance have also diminished the ability of a charity and one of its leaders to raise funds and interfered with their mission of fulfilling one of Islam’s primary tenets by promoting and providing charity to needy New Yorkers.”


NYPD Spied on Muslims in New Jersey to Create Human Mapping System


Not satisfied with intimidating New Yorker Muslims, the NYPD expanded its surveillance programs across state lines into New Jersey to target Muslims living there. This time the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit against the City of New York over NYPD’s surveillance program of New Jersey Muslims. Similar to the ACLU lawsuit, the Center’s lawsuit charged that the “ … NYPD’s goal under this program—both ambitious and chilling—was to create a human mapping system that monitored Muslims all along the Eastern Seaboard and beyond. No Muslim individual or entity appears to have been beyond suspicion. The NYPD monitored and/or infiltrated almost every aspect of Muslim life from mosques and student associations, to halal butcher shops, restaurants, and private citizens. Internal NYPD documents confirm that the surveillance program was not tied to suspicion of criminality and, in fact, produced zero leads to terrorist activity after more than a decade in operation. The documents also show that the NYPD used the racial or ethnic background of Muslim Americans as a proxy to identify and target adherents of the Muslim faith, listing 28 ‘ancestries of interest’ that are—to the NYPD—deserving of additional suspicion and scrutiny. Among those are Egyptian, Pakistani, Somali, Sudanese, and an array of other Asian, Middle Eastern, and African ancestries that together compromise 80% of the world’s Muslim population. Seemingly oblivious to the dark historical irony, the NYPD also listed ‘American Black Muslim’ among the ‘ancestries of interest.’”


Initially called the “Demographics Unit” but later renamed the “Zone Assessment Unit,” the program was terminated last year by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. In an April 2014 statement, the mayor said disbanding the unit was “a critical step forward in easing tensions between the police and the communities they serve, so that our cops and our citizens can help one another go after the real bad guys.”


NYPD Settles NY Case with ACLU


Perhaps it was this spirit of cooperation that led to the city this past June to reach a settlement agreement with this ACLU in its lawsuit. While the terms of the settlement remain confidential, a reasonable assumption can be made that the NYPD will no longer target Muslims for surveillance based on their religious beliefs.


Third Circuit Says Jew Jersey Case Can Move Forward


Advocates for the New Jersey Muslims targeted by the NYPD also recently received good news after the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that their lawsuit can proceed against the city over the NYPD’s surveillance of their community. The lawsuit had been previously dismissed by a federal district court in Newark. Writing for the three judge panel, Judge Thomas L. Ambro observed:


“What occurs here in one guise is not new. We have been down similar roads before. Jewish-Americans during the Red Scare, African-Americans during the civil rights movement and Japanese-Americans during World War II are examples that readily spring to mind … We are left to wonder why we cannot see with foresight what we see so clearly in hindsight, that loyalty is a matter of the heart and mind, not race, creed or color.”


No Muslim Exception in Constitution


Reacting to the court’s decision, Center for Constitutional Rights legal director, Baher Azmy, told the New York Times: “There is no Muslim exception to the Constitution. This case of religious profiling is the other side of the stop-and-frisk coin, … yet the de Blasio administration, which won the election on a platform of police reform, still defends this form of outright discrimination against Muslims.”


The kinds of surveillance programs maintained by the NYPD since 9/11 are not only offensive to the Constitution, but trample on our basic civil liberties. It was known to the NYPD, and other law enforcement agencies throughout the country, that a small percentage of Catholic priests were pedophiles who were sexually abusing minor children over the last five decades. The police did not place the entire Catholic Church under a pervasive surveillance program. A significant percentage of lawmakers and public officials at the local, state, and national level are corrupt and routinely engage in criminal activity but the police have not placed all elective and appointed public officials under surveillance.


Surveillance, therefore, should target only those individuals against whom there is a “reasonable suspicion,” as the Constitution requires, that they are engaged in criminal wrongdoing.


Nation Does Not Belong to the Police


Court-approved law enforcement surveillance is a legitimate evidence-gathering tool, but wholesale surveillance of religious, racial or ethnic groups for the sole purpose of mining for evidence of criminal wrongdoing is loathsome. All Jewish-Americans in this country were not treasonous during the Red Scare because of the actions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; the 110,000 to 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry interned in camps during WWII did not pose a threat to national security; and the African-Americans who marched in the streets, took part in sit-ins, encouraged and assisted other African-Americans in registering to vote, and who boycotted white-owned businesses were not common criminals—and none of these people deserved the illegal surveillance law enforcement subjected them to. The same is true for Muslims today.


This nation does not belong to the police, Homeland Security, CIA, or the NSA—the duty these people owe to protect us from harm or threatened harm is not a license to trample our well-established constitutional rights. The Constitution is more important, and, yes, more powerful than any of these agencies—our individual civil liberties are more sacred than their investigatory powers. We are not their servants, they are ours.