Photo Credit: Reuters
“We will do what we can to help them fight this scourge, and redouble our efforts to make sure it does not happen here. We need to immediately halt the flow of refugees from countries with a significant al Qaida or ISIS presence. We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” TED CRUZ
Ted Cruz’s response to the Brussels’ terrorist attacks has been rightfully and roundly criticized by liberal media outlets and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. However, what the liberal outrage gets wrong about Cruz’s suggestions is that such measures would be out of step with American traditions and security policy. As recently as 2014, the NYPD had a special branch of its intelligence division, the Demographics Unit, dedicated to running surveillance specifically on the NY-metro area Muslim community at large, from kebab stand workers to mosque attendees to Muslim student associations as far off as Philadelphia. This is to say nothing of the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) of the late 1950s-1970s that infiltrated and tried to disrupt the activities of, among others, left-wing student organizations, anti-Vietnam War protestors, and members of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr. To “patrol and secure” whatever the majority of the American population happens to fear at a given moment is firmly within the traditions of American security policy. Ted Cruz’s call for specialized surveillance of an entire group of the American populace for the sake of security is actually the reappearance of an old theme in American history. Recall that the first organizations that resembled police forces in America were the mounted slave patrols that were tasked solely with finding African Americans. To identify and watch over a particular swath of the population is not some sort of aberration but rather the norm in the American way of security. This is American policy on autopilot—cruise control is Cruz control.
To register that such an approach is within the traditions of American policy-making and execution is, of course, not to endorse it. Such ways of providing security have been and will be disastrous to the American Muslim community. They should be opposed on moral, pragmatic, and legal grounds, and in that order. The reason for this is that while the US has had a relatively short history of dealing with terrorism done in the name of Islam, the example of French security policy vis-à-vis its Muslim community across the 20th century can point us to the folly of adopting such an approach.
“To identify and watch over a particular swath of the population is not some sort of aberration but rather the norm in the American way of security. This is American policy on autopilot—cruise control is Cruz control.”
From 1925 until approximately 1980, the Paris Prefecture of Police had a specialized unit whose only tasks were the political surveillance and criminal investigation of Muslims from France’s North African colonies, Morocco, Tunisia, and, most importantly, Algeria. This police service had number of monikers but was generally referred to by police officials and the press as the North African Brigade. Its main task was to collect information on the entirety of the Muslim community in Paris and repress anti-colonialist and nationalist feeling. It didn’t work. What it did do was further entrench a hierarchy of belonging in France. After 1947, Algerians living in France were by law French citizens. However, with the specialized policing program they were not treated as such, and this fact was not lost on them. Thus, not only was it deeply immoral to treat an entire segment of the population as suspects rather than citizens based simply on their identity, it also did not produce the intended results. That is to say, all three North African colonies gained independence, and North Africans in France became increasingly wary of any interaction with the French police. While legal opposition to such policies might be useful insofar as they constitute opposition per se, what French and American history demonstrate is that the laws can always be tweaked in times of crisis to legalize government actions. The French invented the “state of emergency” during the Algerian War to provide the government security forces with a freer hand, and the US passed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, aka the USA PATRIOT Act, in 2001. Shortly thereafter, American lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel redefined torture, which, incidentally, the French had also used extensively in Algeria in the late 1950s.
America has some great traditions. The demonization of entire communities in the name of security is not one of them. Ted Cruz’s proclamations about essentially criminalizing Muslim identity should be rejected. But don’t waive the Constitution in his face to denounce such recommendations. There could well be a process whereby Muslim surveillance becomes constitutional given what has been approved by our legislature and judiciary. The September 18, 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force and the November 13, 2001 Executive Order on Military Commissions have created the grounds for perpetual war coupled with the near suspension of habeas corpus since 2001. The fragility of law during times of emergency, real or imagined, has been known since antiquity. The Roman statesman Cicero noted, “In times of war, the law falls silent.” Events like these terrible attacks in Brussels, which involve equal parts tragedy, fear, and anger, are a test for American society. They can also act as a reminder to mobilize the forces of collective morality so we can hopefully get out of cruise/Cruz control.