After Orlando, We Need Solidarity — Not Suspicionless Surveillance
by Naureen Shah, Director of the Security with Human Rights program at AIUSA
The country is grieving the tragic shooting in Orlando, and we all stand in solidarity with the people who were killed and injured, many of whom were LGBT and people of color. It’s a heinous, senseless crime.
As a country, we need to take a hard look at how we can ensure that all people can live safely and without fear of violence, which means treating gun violence like the human rights crisis it is. We also need to take a hard look at how we can protect all people from discrimination and hate crimes. And we must make sure that one hateful act doesn’t fuel another — and Muslims and immigrants aren’t scapegoated as a result of this terrible tragedy.
We’re starting to see it from some members of Congress already. They’re calling for greater government power to conduct surveillance and monitor all our behavior, even if we’re not suspected of a particular crime. Nearly fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, this song of crisis and fear is on an endless loop.
It’s true that expanding government surveillance powers to keep everyone under watch will, by definition, keep everyone (including would-be attackers) under watch. But that’s false assurance. It would flood law enforcement with data — and make it harder to identify people who are actually planning crimes. Responding to Orlando by asking for more government surveillance power is akin to telling investigators to focus on assembling haystacks instead of telling them to get better at finding needles.
More suspicionless surveillance programs — including those that specifically target American Muslim communities — also threaten to turn this country into a snoop state, where people are told to spy on each other. This vigilante surveillance is likely to produce wild speculation, lead people to over-report based on prejudice rather than fact, and sow distrust and suspicion in communities.
The climate of constant surveillance also undermines the prospects of legitimate crime reporting. The last fifteen years has shown that ordinary citizens can help prevent attacks by reporting tips to the police. According to one study, two out of every five disrupted terrorism attacks between 2001 and 2011 were based on information provided by Muslim community members. But from India to Ireland, experience shows that when people are afraid of police and afraid of being harassed or wrongfully targeted, they are less likely to report crimes.
As President Obama pointed out yesterday, proposals to put Muslims under special surveillance won’t make the country safer, and are discriminatory. It’s important to call these openly bigoted proposals out as pure scapegoating, as President Obama did. But it’s also important to scrutinize new surveillance proposals that, though not wrapped up in anti-Muslim rhetoric, would have the effect of empowering the FBI and other intelligence agencies to keep American Muslims and other minorities under permanent watch — without a court order or public oversight.
The larger problem with suspicionless surveillance and other reactionary counterterrorism proposals is that they elide the hard realities of this moment. Armed groups that commit war crimes and crimes against humanity, like the one calling itself the Islamic State, don’t exist in a vacuum. Each arise for complex, specific reasons, and we shouldn’t pretend there is just a single driver (or, for that matter, a single threat — or single solution).
Still, we know these horrific attacks are part of a larger and longer pattern of violence and conflict. The U.S. cannot shut the doors, bar the gates and hope that global crises do not reach its shores. It must play its part in the ambitious, decades-long project of building an international system for the protection of human rights as the best guarantor of progress toward peace. It’s always been clear that the U.S. should not support governments that torture, indiscriminately kill and crush dissenters. But this is not a lofty goal, it’s a hard reality: as long as governments have U.S. money, arms and support to commit human rights abuses, tens of thousands of people will be caught in the cross-fire of crisis and conflict. If the UN and other systems to protect human rights are weak, the prospects for reducing violence will be weak, too.