NYPD's Religious Profiling


I don't really know what else to say about the revelation that the New York police department has spent the last ten years spying on students--not just in New York--but basically throughout the Northeast.

I would like to highlight two points. First here is the NYPD's rationale for its behavior:

The recent NYPD reports reveal the department has taken a keen interest in Muslim student associations, which it refers to as MSAs. In an email to the Guardian, NYPD spokesman Paul Browne pointed to a dozen individuals arrested or convicted on terrorism charges in the United States and abroad who had once been members of Muslim student associations. 

Browne noted that Anwar Al Awlaki -- an American citizen and a radical cleric killed by a US drone in Yemen -- was "president of the MSA at Colorado State University in the mid-1990s". Browne also referred to Adam Gadahn, whom he described as "al-Qaida's English language spokesman" and affiliated with "MSA at USC".
The Al Awlaki portion at the end is as fascinating as it is disturbing. If you follow the logic through it basically justifies a municipal police department spying on anyone who ever headed a Muslim Students Association anywhere in the United States. When you consider that in many cases these informants weren't even investigating a crime, or building a case, that they were just spying, and the obvious incentive to "find" a case, Browne's words are chilling. 

Here is a Muslim student noting the effects of the spying:

Micha Balon, 19, observed a consequence of the NYPD's MSA focus firsthand. Days after the news first broke that the department had monitored Muslim students in New York City, she says she noticed a new sign posted at her MSA meeting place at Hunter College. 

"About four days afterwards, I came to my MSA to pray," Balon recalls. "I saw a sign up that said 'Please refrain from having political conversations in MSA.'" Balon says her MSA president told her the sign was intended to ensure the "safety" of the students. 

Balon said that while the sign eventually disappeared, the significance of its presence has not. She's noticed that discussing controversial political topics now makes other MSA members uncomfortable. "I'll bring up Palestine or I'll bring up the revolutions happening in the Arab world and I'll get a look. And that look is kinda like, 'What are you doing? You're putting us all in danger,'" Balon said.
This where you see the really long-term effects of terrorism. It's not simply the number of people you murder, it's how the smallest act can alter the character of a nation. Some incompetent asshole straps a bomb to his underwear, and now we have to get full body scans. The free exchange of ideas is one of democracy's greatest benefits. Universities, ostensibly, are supposed to showcase that more than anywhere else. But for want of conjured evil, we're willing to part with that asset.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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