NYPD Spying On College Students Is Counterproductive

The NYPD's surveillance of an entire community based on their faith is a blow against democracy and an ineffective and counterproductive offense to its mandate to "protect and serve."
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We come from two very different backgrounds. One was born Muslim, the child of immigrant parents, who fled war in Afghanistan to find a better life in America. The other is the son of a Jewish father and Catholic mother of Salvadorian heritage, who grew up in New Jersey and converted to Islam to seek spiritual renewal.

What we share is the experience of having shaped our American Muslim identity on a college campus through involvement with Muslim student organizations. Becoming involved in civic activism, we always saw our values as Americans and as Muslims in harmony with each other.

That shared experience, which nurtured our pride in being American Muslims, is precisely what caused us to be profoundly shocked by revelations of massive surveillance of Muslim communities across the Northeast, including university campuses by the New York Police Department (NYPD)

The NYPD's surveillance of an entire community based on their faith -- with no evidence of criminal activity -- is a blow against democracy and an ineffective and counterproductive offense to its mandate to "protect and serve."

When students and their parents feel intimidated, there is a chilling affect on civic engagement and political discourse on campus. Students at NYU and CUNY already have reported a drop in attendance at Muslim Student Association events, and anxious parents are pressuring their children not to get involved in campus activities. When students do not have a safe space to talk to their peers, discuss issues of identity and feel confident enough to express their views, toxic ideas will never be challenged.

Our experience as engaged students allowed us to better forge our American Muslim identity and answer questions of belonging, which virtually all college students ask on their journey to adulthood. Yet that process, which is so crucial in the maturing of citizenship, is polluted when college students have every reason to suspect that they are being spied on.

We have to ask ourselves, "What are we gaining in return for sacrificing the freedoms that make our nation great?" NYPD spokesman Paul Browne has argued that broad surveillance was necessary because 12 suspects who have been charged with terrorism-related activities were at one-time involved in a Muslim student group.

That assertion is a stretch, at best. Several of the "students" that Brown refers to went to universities in other countries: one became supportive of violence well before the attacks of 9/11 and another became involved in violent activity 12 years after he left college and the country.

The law enforcement officials we work with have repeatedly said that profiling is counterproductive and that working with communities is the best way to prevent terrorism. On Feb. 24, the Deputy Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department Michael Downing emphasized his department's long-standing community outreach efforts with Muslim leaders and drew a contrast between his department's approach and that of the NYPD. "We don't profile people," he said. "We do profile criminality. We profile criminal behavior."

And the proof is in the numbers: According to our organization's "Post-9/11 Terrorism Database," since 2009, half of all Al-Qaeda domestic terror plots have been prevented as a result of community partnerships with law enforcement.

The future leaders of our nation walk through the doors of our university campuses. They learn civic engagement and begin to form their political identities. Exposure to the free marketplace of ideas and engagement in open debate on tough issues is what makes America the world's intellectual hub. Our universities are the most sought after institutions of higher learning; our freedom of thought on campuses is the envy of many. If the NYPD is allowed to continue this type of behavior unchecked by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the State Attorney General and the Department of Justice, those freedoms will be jeopardized and our nation's security will be at risk.

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