Human Rights Watch and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute recently published a report, “Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions” that is, in the words of The Washington Post, “a blistering assessment of the Justice Department’s role in the fight against terrorism, taking aim at tactics used to identify and prosecute suspects.”
The report contains a list of recommendations, including a suggestion that would, if implemented, severely constrain the FBI in its efforts to keep Americans safe and prevent another 9/11 – imposing a form of institutional Alzheimer’s on law enforcement.
In reviewing the 200-plus-page study, it becomes clear that America is fortunate that academics and self-proclaimed “human rights advocates” aren’t charged with protecting our country and its interests.
The report claims that, at least in the 27 terrorism prosecutions it examined, the United States “has failed to meet its international legal obligations with respect to its investigations and prosecutions of terrorism suspects, as well as its treatment of terrorism suspects in (custody).” Among the sins that the federal government is accused of is that of trying “to root out and prosecute individuals the government believes might eventually plan and carry out acts of terrorism.”
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This intention, to prevent terror rather than prosecute perpetrators after the fact, upsets the report’s authors because, in some instances, “defendants do not appear to have been involved in terrorist plotting or financing at the time the government began to investigate them.” The shoe that the report’s authors don’t drop is whether these defendants were willingly involved in terrorist plotting after the government began to investigate them; were the government’s assumptions and allocation of resources warranted?
The report openly rejects the notion that underpins a segment of the government’s terrorism prevention efforts, that American Muslim communities warrant special scrutiny because they might be more susceptible to terrorist propaganda and blandishments than other communities. As support for their position, the authors cite, among other documents, a Pew Research Center report for the proposition that “violent jihad is discordant with the values, outlook and attitudes of the vast majority of Muslim Americans, most of whom reject extremism,” despite the fact that fewer than half of all Muslim Americans (4 in 10) believe the abundantly documented reality that a group of Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks.
One needn’t be a foreign policy maven or a particularly insightful student of modern history to conclude that Muslim communities in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia are particularly susceptible to terrorist propaganda and, indeed, terrorist acts. It isn’t bigotry or stereotyping that would lead one to that conclusion, it’s simply obvious to anyone who reads the news.
Accepting that reality is not to sanction unconstitutional intrusions on individual Americans’ liberties, nor is it a carte blanche to violate the legal protections that extend to all on our shores. But, being cognizant of the world around us requires that law enforcement know that social, political and religious differences may matter in how people interact with the world. They needn’t have a different threshold for civil liberties protections for Muslim Americans than other religious, ethnic or racial groups, but neither can they be unaware of over a decade of problems worldwide.
Those realities are recognized by the Muslim community’s domestic leadership, if not by Human Rights Watch and Columbia University.
One of the nation’s leading Muslim American organizations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, recognizes the special susceptibility of the Muslim American community to “radicalization.” The council engages in serious efforts within the Muslim community and with law enforcement to help deal with that problem. In a publication entitled “Building Bridges to Strengthen America,” they recognize that there are complex and multifaceted explanations for the phenomenon of young American Muslims being attracted to extremists and extremist ideologies in the Muslim world. They aver the problem “cannot be explained or dealt with through either simplistic analyses or uni-dimensional policy responses.”
They spend numerous pages in their report describing theories as to why Western Muslims become radicalized – if there weren’t real problems they wouldn’t be focusing on this issue. The theories they illuminate range from “socio-economic deprivation” to “identity politics” to “social affiliations” to “political marginalization/grievances” to the “presence of radical ideology.”
Unlike Human Rights Watch and Columbia, the council doesn’t deny the reality that any aware human can see in the world around them – there is a particular and unique problem posed by and to the Muslim community. There are issues that need acknowledging and counteraction, not avoidance by rigid adherence to abstract ideological notions.
Human Rights Watch and Columbia would view Quakers and Muslims alike: unwilling to acknowledge that law enforcement is justified in according more scrutiny and attention to one group over the other.
Their report recommends that the U.S. Attorney General should amend the Guidelines for Domestic FBI Operations to bar “assessments, preliminary investigations, or investigations made on the basis of religious behavior, political opinion, or other activity protected by the right to freedom of expression under international law.” Under First Amendment jurisprudence, virtually everything short of an attempt to engage in terrorism is protected – admirers of Osama bin Laden, advocates of jihad and supporters of violent Islamism tolerated. That does not mean that law enforcement shouldn’t know who these folks are, be able to assess them and, when appropriate, investigate them.
Human Rights Watch would have us wait till the fuse is about to be lit before law enforcement can even preliminarily investigate dangerous people. It may be an appropriate prescription for the ivory towers in Morningside Heights and the rarefied air of a nongovernmental organization, but then they aren’t responsible for anyone’s safety.