While the United States military diligently searches for terrorists in the rugged mountains separating Afghanistan and Pakistan, the New York Police Department is conducting its own search for potential terrorists in an only slightly less menacing location: colleges of the Northeast.
The revelation that the NYPD has been infiltrating and spying on Muslim student groups at 16 colleges, including Yale, Rutgers and the University of Pennsylvania, is part of a long-running investigation by the Associated Press, which has reported widespread monitoring of Muslim businesses, mosques and Muslim students on college campuses.
Since the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, the NYPD has swiftly emerged at the forefront of aggressive domestic intelligence agencies. The so-called “Demographics Unit,” a secret squad which deploys plainclothes officers (typically of Arab descent) into Muslim neighborhoods, has been used to compile a catalog of everywhere that Muslims meet, including restaurants, grocery stores, Internet cafes, travel agencies and mosques.
The undercover officers spied within businesses and filed daily reports both on the ethnicities of the owners and clientele and on the conversations they “overheard.” Individuals, businesses and groups were not monitored on the basis of criminal activity, but merely because they were Muslim-affiliated. The Demographics Unit also sometimes operated outside of New York City limits, and thus outside of its jurisdiction.
Muslim student organizations in colleges throughout the Northeast were infiltrated by the NYPD and Muslim student groups’ websites were the subject of scrutiny and documentation. Names of students with absolutely no ties or allegations to criminal wrongdoing were included in police files.
The NYPD also kept files on Muslim New Yorkers who changed their names to sound more stereotypically American, as well as those who changed to new, more Arab names. Mosque-goers were subject to monitoring as well, and the NYPD recorded license plates and audiovisual surveillance of worshipers arriving at the mosques. Sermons, even those lacking extremist undertones, were recorded by undercover officers as well.
Students as far as 300 miles away at the University of Buffalo were subject to espionage that rivaled, and at times even outpaced, the tactics used by the FBI. The NYPD even crossed state lines to infiltrate student groups at colleges such as Yale. Call me crazy, but I have trouble believing that the next major terrorist attack on New York City will be the product of wonky Yale students.
The NYPD not only combed through internet posts and monitored individuals, but also directed operatives to physically leave their jurisdiction to infiltrate Muslim student groups with informants. It has been reported that the NYPD even went so far as to send an undercover agent on a whitewater rafting trip with Muslim students to document their conversations and the number of times each student prayed every day.
Disturbing Orwellian implications aside, such actions present a significant problem – and potentially a legal issue – within the undercover program. The NYPD claims that they have merely used the same strategies that are already used by the FBI, a fact which they seem to think justifies their actions. However, the NYPD is not a federal agency like the FBI, and their actions have gone far beyond the duties of a municipal police department.
The NYPD has staunchly defended the questionable tactics of the secret NYPD program, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg himself even unapologetically defended the practices when questioned by reporters. “We have to keep this country safe. This is a dangerous place. Make no mistake about it,” Bloomberg said.
Bloomberg’s comments are far more dangerous than any potential terrorist threat to emerge from the menacing depths of Yale. National security is, and should be, a priority, but civil liberties should not be thrown to the wind at the whim of Mayor Bloomberg. The tactics employed by the NYPD “protect” freedom at the cost of freedom itself.
The Mayor’s defense of the NYPD’s overreaches is hardly surprising. At a speaking engagement in November of 2011, Bloomberg said, “I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh biggest army in the world.” The fact that Mayor Bloomberg sees the NYPD as a military force, much less his own personal one, is fundamentally troubling. The military and law enforcement departments function for deeply contrasting purposes.
The militarization of the American police is an extremely dangerous trend that Mayor Bloomberg should not be facilitating. Soldiers go to war to kill and destroy, while the police are supposed to maintain peace. They serve incredibly different functions, and Bloomberg would be wise to take notice.
Why has there been an only barely audible murmur of disapproval over these alarming discoveries? If the targets of the Demographics Unit had been Christian, the public would have erupted in condemnation. Americans should not turn a blind eye to discriminatory tactics that threaten a whole group’s civil liberties on the sole basis of their religion, ethnicity or the neighborhood they live in. The boots of the NYPD should not be allowed to soil the U.S. Constitution.
Canton Winer, FCRH ’15, is an undeclared major from West Palm Beach, Fla.