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‘Keep Fear Alive’: A Misguided Call To Double Down On Localized Secret Policing

This surveil-everything approach keeps failing, but we can't ever seem to get enough. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
This surveil-everything approach keeps failing, but we can't ever seem to get enough. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

A new report issued on behalf of private business executives, and co-signed by former Boston Police Department Commissioner Ed Davis, asks America to build an even larger domestic spying apparatus to snoop on ordinary Americans. These recommendations fly in the face of evidence that such policies fail to keep us safe, while threatening fundamental liberties.

The report — funded by Business Executives for National Security — was signed by a group of current and past defense-industry executives, law enforcement officials and spies. It invokes the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2009 Fort Hood shootings and the Boston Marathon bombing to justify calls for increased public spending to engorge the already bloated national surveillance state.

It’s not hard to see why business executives with links to the government want to double-down on these failed policies. Big fear equals big budgets. The corporations and government entities represented by the report’s authors stand to benefit financially from building a bigger and more intrusive homeland security system.

fear is not a sound basis for public policy, especially when public safety and constitutional liberties are on the line.

Fear has always been an engine for government power and private profit. Former FBI assistant director Thomas Fuentes put it like this:

“If you’re submitting budget proposals for a law enforcement agency, for an intelligence agency, you’re not going to submit the proposal that ‘We won the war on terror and everything’s great,’ cuz the first thing that’s gonna happen is your budget’s gonna be cut in half,” Fuentes says. “You know, it’s my opposite of Jesse Jackson’s ‘Keep Hope Alive’—it’s ‘Keep Fear Alive.’ Keep it alive.”

But fear is not a sound basis for public policy, especially when public safety and constitutional liberties are on the line. Those who would sacrifice liberty for the illusion of safety or, worse still, for private profit or personal power, play into the hands of America’s enemies. We shouldn’t waste our scarce tax dollars buying the snake-oil remedies that post-9/11 salesmen too often try to sell by priming the pump of public fear.

Despite widely publicized, tragic events like the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the attack on a Sikh temple in 2012, terrorist attacks in the United States occur at far lower levels than they did in the 1970s. The truth is, Americans are as likely to be killed by their own furniture falling on them as they are by terrorists. Lightning is more likely to strike you than a terrorist attack. You are more likely to die from surgical complications than by a terrorist’s gun. And you are far, far more likely to die in a car crash.

Notably, the aforementioned 2012 attack on a Sikh temple wasn’t included in the business executives’ report. That’s because the report focuses almost entirely on Muslim violence, to the exclusion of other forms of political killing. In the same vein, the report also endorses the so-called “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE) programs that are being rolled out in Boston and other cities. Unfortunately, these programs are not just discriminatory. They are bad for public safety.

While officials say the government’s CVE programs won't uniquely target Muslim communities, their operational focus on mosques undermines that claim. You might be thinking that the government should be inside mosques. But the fact is that not a single terrorist attack in the United States -- including the 9/11 attacks -- has originated at a mosque.

Here in Boston, for example, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was thrown out of a Cambridge mosque after he said inflammatory things that offended the community. The CVE program, as it now stands, endangers free speech and religious liberty, by encouraging largely Muslim parents and communities to report their own children to the authorities for simple rebellious speech. In so doing, it threatens to further exacerbate tensions between Muslims — unfairly targeted as somehow uniquely violent, when empirical evidence shows that’s false -- and law enforcement officials. That’s not good for public safety or civil liberties.

The same poor thinking permeates the entire report. The authors conclude that taxpayers should spend billions to empower state and local police departments to engage in intelligence and surveillance programs. In particular, the report recommends doubling down on data ‘fusion centers.’ But the authors ignore the evidence that such centers and federal funding for state and local police for surveillance have been failures nationwide. As U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn’s January 2014 report on the Department of Homeland Security found, these programs have not yielded anything of value in national counterterrorism efforts.

At a time when concerns about police practices are causing people from the most impacted communities -- particularly Black and Latino people -- to fill the streets in protest, public funds should go toward community policing, not domestic spying.

The push to give state and local law enforcement yet more access to federal intelligence stores is particularly troubling. The FBI, along with its partner the NSA, collects records of every single phone call made in the United States. This is done without warrants, on a mass scale. The DEA also operates nationwide, dragnet intelligence gathering programs throughout the country. Since 9/11, the FBI has been granted the power to investigate people even if agents have no reason to believe their target is engaged in wrongdoing.

Turning local cops into agents of the national security state threatens to further undermine community trust in local police. At a time when concerns about police practices are causing people from the most impacted communities — particularly black and Latino people — to fill the streets in protest, public funds should go toward community policing, not domestic spying.

True public safety will be achieved only if we roll back the post-9/11 excesses, fight for an open society and reorient taxpayer dollars towards spending on critical infrastructure, climate change preparation and basic services like jobs, education, affordable housing and health care. It’s time to reverse the failed, corrosive trends of the past 15 years and institute basic justice in the United States.

Contra the proponents of terrorism hysteria, we must heed FDR’s call to reject fear — not orient our public policy around it.


This piece was co-authored by Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the ACLU of Massachusetts. 

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