What a Muslim American Said to Defend His Patriotism

The comments illustrate how government surveillance can corrode core U.S. values.

Glenn Greenwald's latest scoop, reported and written with Murtaza Hussain at The Intercept, names five Muslim Americans who were spied on by the national-security state.

Faisal Gill is one of them. An American citizen, he came to the United States at age 8, "grew up in Northern Virginia, earned a law degree from American University in 1996, and joined the U.S. Navy." After 9/11, he joined the Bush administration, "eventually moving to the White House Office of Homeland Security, where he briefly worked with Richard Clarke and obtained a top-secret security clearance. After roughly a year, he joined the Department of Homeland Security as a senior policy adviser, where he was cleared to access sensitive compartmented information, a classification level reserved for some of the nation’s most closely held secrets."

Told by The Intercept that he was being spied upon, he agreed to an interview, in which he understandably felt impelled to defend his patriotism and character: 

Consider some of his statements:

  • "You should be active in your community. And I have done that. The fact that I was surveilled in spite of doing all that—it just goes to show you the hysteria that everybody feels."
  • "I've never given a speech where I've said any ill feelings toward the United States."
  • "I was a very conservative, Reagan-loving Republican."
  • "I watch sports. I watch football. My kids are all raised here. My kids at that time went to Catholic school. It isn't as if I was raising them in a different way ..."

Put in the same position, most people would say analogous things. I wouldn't blame them, and I don't intend to criticize Gill, who showed laudable bravery by speaking about his case on the record, when I note that his words illustrate a corrosive effect that government spying has on American society. For in explaining why he finds it absurd that he was surveilled, Gill can't help but imply that it would be more understandable if he were inactive in his community, or a Reagan-hating liberal, or if he disliked football and sent his kids to a Muslim parochial school. 

This is what happens in a surveillance state: To inoculate themselves against suspicion, people seem to legitimize the victimization of other, less favored groups, even though they're every bit as entitled to privacy and civil-liberties protections. They do so without intending any prejudice—I assume, for example, that if asked directly Gill would say that of course spying on parents who send their kids to Muslim schools is every bit as illegitimate. He only meant to suggest that it's irrational to spy on him given America's paranoid post-9/11 standards, and that people less mainstream than him must undeservedly have it even worse. His words would nevertheless feel like a blow to folks who fall into the groups that he implicitly characterized as more reasonable targets of surveillance.

Gill correctly perceives that we'll all know what he means when he invokes the characteristics he possesses that would seem to make him less suspicious. The fact that most people internalize these judgments to some degree illustrates how chilling effects work: Americans, especially those who belong to minority groups, formulate a sense of what speech and actions will cast suspicion on or away from them. The mere existence of surveillance thus changes behavior that is constitutionally protected and in many cases civically valuable. This is a significant cost that I've yet to see any national-security official acknowledge.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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