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The Domestic War on Terror: Post 9/11 Policing of Americans from the Middle East

The militarization of American law enforcement has been a widely discussed topic in both academia and political activism for some time now; the roots of this issue can be traced back to the War on Drugs in the 1960s and as such discussions of militarized policing and its impact on people of color often focus upon this context. The War on Drugs is not the only relevant context in which the discussion of militarized policing is appropriate, however.

As discussed by Peter Gottschalk of the Hartford Courant, one such context in which to discuss the militarization of police is the War on Terror. Gottschalk explains that “Many of the worst dynamics at play now… were heightened in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001 and have made blameless Muslims prime suspects”. The treatment of Muslims by American law enforcement has a long history of abuse, such as the surveillance of the Nation of Islam by the FBI during the Civil Rights Movement. Gottschalk argues, however, that “antagonistic policing” of Muslim Americans and Middle Eastern Americans (regardless of religion) has evolved significantly since the September 11th. In the wake of these attacks on American soil and the subsequent wars in the Middle East, law enforcement agencies across the country experienced a boom in militarization in the name of national security, such as how since 2001 “local law enforcement in Connecticut has acquired than [sic] 3,000 military-origin items”.

The ACLU reports that “the infusion of DHS money and assistance to state and local law enforcement anti-terrorism work” through the Homeland Security Grant Program and its components, the State Homeland Security Program and the Urban Areas Security Initiative, “has led to even more police militarization and… military-law enforcement contact.” The ACLU notes that these grants require departments dedicate at least 25% of grant funds to ‘terrorism prevention-related law enforcement activities’, a term with no clear meaning, which leads to the conclusion that “local law enforcement agencies use DHS funds… to conduct ordinary law enforcement activities”.

When American law enforcement actually does engage in anti-terrorism efforts, the results have been less than desirable. The Center for Constitutional Rights outlines numerous litigation efforts against Muslim Profiling:

One case is Turkmen v. Ashcroft, a lawsuit representing “Muslim, South Asian, and Arab non-citizens swept up… in connection with the 9/11 investigation”. In addition to being arrested primarily on the basis of race/religion/national origin, these “terrorism suspects” were “purposefully deprived of sleep, denied contact with the outside world, beaten and verbally abused, and denied the ability to practice their religion” while waiting for federal authorities to clear them of wrongdoing, only to then be deported regardless of guilt or innocence.

In Aref, et al. v. Barr, et al., the CCR represented prisoners (many with clean disciplinary records) who were used by the federal Bureau of Prisons in 2006 and 2008 to test experimental “Communications Management Units” (CMUs). Designed to isolate prisoners from the outside world, prisoners in CMUs “are banned from any physical contact with friends and family, and their access to phone calls and work and educational opportunities are extremely limited”. While the guidelines for justifying the transfer of a prisoner to a CMU are unknown, it is worth noting that “60[%] of CMU prisoners are Muslim, though Muslims comprise only 6[%] of the federal prisoner population.”

Hassan v. City of New York is a federal lawsuit challenging a police unit established in 2001 called the Demographics Unit (later renamed the Zone Assessment Unit), which was revealed in 2011 to have been dedicated to “suspicionless surveillance of Muslim Americans in New Jersey solely because of their Muslim identity”. Gottschalk explains that between 2001 and 2014, the NYPD “spied on mosques, bookstores, restaurants and Muslim student groups in the city and surrounding areas”, however according to the Associated Press this program “never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation”.

In addition to the formal policing apparatus being aggressively militarized against Muslim and Middle Eastern communities during the War on Terror, evidence also shows an alarming amount of anti-Muslim sentiment held by American law enforcement personnel. In an investigation of personal social media use by police officials published in 2019, Will Carless and Michael Corey of Reveal discovered “police officers across the country belonging to a wide spectrum of extremist groups on Facebook”. While personnel tended to keep offensive comments about Blacks, Latinos, and the LGBTQ+ community hidden within closed groups, “Islamophobic behavior was notably brazen” and “anti-Muslim comments often were posted on public pages for all to see.” The authors note that after notifying nearly 150 police departments across the country of their employees’ behavior, not a single department had indicated that they planned to discipline the offending personnel.

This behavior, both by individual officers and by the departments they work for, is especially concerning in light of evidence that hate crimes against Middle Easterners and Muslims have been on the rise. New America reports that “anti-Muslim activities have increased markedly since late 2015” with their project “cataloguing 763 separate incidents from 2012 to 2018.” Worse still, research indicates that these views are not abnormal amongst police officials. Research conducted by Keeling and Hughes with a sample of police commanders found that in many instances knowledge about Muslims “was based on stereotypes rather than a factual understanding of Muslims and Islam” and that “many of the attitudes were negative and based on stereotypic rather than accurate information about Muslim culture and… Islam”. More recent research by Dubosh, Poulakis, and Abdelghani found that a majority of the officers they interviewed considered Muslims to be dangerous and did not consider Islam to be a religion of peace, the latter echoing a similar finding by Keeling and Hughes.

The combination of post-9/11 police militarization with evidence of prejudiced attitudes held by law enforcement personnel towards Muslims and Middle Easterners is a great cause for concern. Although muddled by inconsistent operationalization due to the awkward intersection of race and religion that characterizes the treatment of people from the Middle East in the United States, the research shows that American law enforcement engages in prejudiced behavior at the individual level and discriminatory behavior at the organizational level. Discourse regarding the treatment of these communities by police is largely absent from ongoing debates over criminal justice reform, however it is vital that the domestic victims of the War on Terror are not forgotten.

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