The bombing of the Boston Marathon last month has called into question some notions that have been close to sacrosanct in the civil rights/human relations communities for decades.
That act of terror has raised profound questions about the nature of our democracy, the rights of individuals and groups, the tolerance level of the public towards minorities and the balance between individual rights and the public good.
The Boston Marathon bombing has, by virtue of the alleged perpetrators, raised the question as to how far law enforcement has gone and ought to go to prevent the recurrence of similar “lone wolf” acts of terror by Islamist jihadists.
The facile and oft repeated response is that no group should be “profiled.” Lacking “probable cause” that a crime is being planned, no group should be watched nor individual members of a group monitored more closely than others. The traditional notion is that unless a crime is imminent individuals and groups are to be viewed and treated equally and at a distance.
But the Boston Marathon bombing (committed not by foreign nationals sneaking their way onto our shores) callously and murderously executed by seemingly normal neighbors validates the position taken by the New York Police Department (for which it has been widely vilified) that certain groups warrant closer scrutiny and, yes, profiling.
Last year, the NYPD’s Demographics Unit was found to have been gathering information on Muslims not only in New York but in other parts of the northeast United States. They were vigorously criticized in some quarters (the Associated Press won a Pulitzer Prize for writing about the NYPD’s practices). The ACLU ridiculed the NYPD’s concept of terrorist “radicalization”---however, the Department’s analysis of likely terrorists reads like a primer on the brothers Tsarnaev. Some believe that had the Tsarnaevs been in New York they would have been on the NYPD’s surveillance list and closely watched.
A recent Wall Street Journal column pointed out that the NYPD has thwarted 16 terrorist attacks in the city since 9/11. A fact that it is easy to be blasé about, but the countless lives that weren’t snuffed out or destroyed in the absence of terror is a significant accomplishment.
In response to his critics, Mayor Bloomberg has been refreshingly honest,
the police department goes where there are allegations, and they look to see whether those allegations are true. That’s what you’d expect them to do. That’s what you’d want them to do. Remind yourself when you turn off the light tonight.
The NYPD was equally clear in response to the critics of its monitoring of Muslim student activities and Muslim Student Associations (“MSA”) on college campuses. The NYPD spokesman, in a rather prescient observation last year noted that “Some of the most dangerous Western al Qaeda-linked/inspired terrorists since 9/11 were radicalized and/or recruited at universities in MSAs.”
To acknowledge the obvious is not to stereotype Muslim Americans or Arab Americans; it is simply to state what most Americans can glean from reading their newspapers and watching the news over the past decade--- there is a problem that Islam must deal with.
As The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman recently wrote:
But we must ask a question only Muslims can answer: What is going on in your community that a critical number of your youth believes that every American military action in the Middle East is intolerable and justifies a violent response, and everything Muslim extremists do to other Muslims is ignorable and calls for mostly silence?
The tendency of opinion molders and other leaders to skirt the obvious and pretend that Muslims and Quakers should be viewed similarly is partially grounded in a belief that breaching political correctness could degenerate into dangerous bigotry and stereotyping of Muslim and Arab Americans (the internment of Japanese Americans haunts our memories).
That fear seems not to be warranted, even if it should always give us pause and temper our actions and words.
Americans have absorbed the message of the civil rights era well---we have learned not to extrapolate from the individual to the group. A problem with some youthful Muslim males does not extend to the colleague at work or the worshippers at the mosque. We have learned to parse bad guys and potential bad guys from normal folk.
In the light of the series of incidents that have occurred over the past decade---Ft. Hood, the Christmas Day bomber, Times Square, etc. ---there would be ample grounds for suspicion, hostility and nastiness against Muslim Americans were that our tendency. Yet, an August, 2011 Pew Study found that:
At a personal level, most [Muslims] think that ordinary Americans are friendly (48%) or neutral (32%) toward Muslim Americans; relatively few (16%) believe the general public is unfriendly toward Muslim Americans. About two-thirds (66%) say that the quality of life for Muslims in the U.S. is better than in most Muslim countries.
Strikingly, Muslim Americans are far more satisfied with the way things are going in the country (56%) than is the general public (23%). Four years ago, Muslim Americans and the public rendered fairly similar judgments about the state of the nation (38% of Muslims vs. 32% of the general public were satisfied).
We ought to give ourselves the credit that we have earned and receive honest and frank assessments on matters that can and have impacted life and death (even if some profiling, warranted by data, occurs).
Most of us have learned to resist Islamophobia and the facile resort to stereotyping and bigotry. Religious leaders and civil rights activists have successfully imparted that message to several generations of Americans, and it seems to be sticking.