Privacy SOS

In the decade since 9/11, the full weight of government has been bent on ensuring homeland security – a term rarely heard before the 2001 attacks, when various agencies were in charge of civil defense. As a windfall of federal funds has been disbursed to the states to fight terrorism, common sense public safety is no longer a top funding priority.

Are our communities really safer when police departments get DHS grants for equipment to detect improvised explosive devices but no longer have federal funds to sustain community policing? And which is more likely to guarantee the safety of transit passengers: security theater searches to deter potential terrorists or repairs to aging track and electrical systems?

It is time to overcome fear, and put the threat represented by terrorism in perspective. According to FBI statistics, terrorist incidents in the US accounted for 3,178 deaths in the period 1980 – 2005. Apart from those killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11, 2001 attacks, 48 people lost their lives to terrorism. During the same 25-year period, 500,000 people were murdered in the United States. That is a critical public safety issue.

Muslim communities have borne the brunt of the nation’s focus on terrorism. Rather than building up relations of trust, JTTFs and other law enforcement agencies have adopted the counterproductive strategy of treating Muslims as an actual or potential “enemy within.” Their raids have received sensational media coverage, leading the public to assume that Muslims are chiefly responsible for terrorist incidents. But FBI reports show this is in fact far from the case. They detail terrorist incidents that would have dominated the news if Muslims had been involved. White supremacist cyanide bomb plots and plans to blow up mosques have scarcely merited a mention.

Other studies cast doubt on the dimensions of America’s terrorist problem. A large percentage of “terrorist” prosecutions recommended by the FBI have nothing to do with terrorism and little supporting evidence. The substantial role played by informers in supplying ideas, funds and even weapons to plotters has been revealed in case after case that has come to court.

Of course, we have no way of knowing if any real terrorist plots have been pre-empted by data-led intelligence and high tech surveillance. It was the action of passengers and street vendors that thwarted the three impending terrorist attacks we do know about. Just as in the pre-9/11 period, there is evidence that the now greatly enlarged intelligence bureaucracy is still prone to what President Obama called systemic failure, and is overwhelmed with information.

The new surveillance state has already cost us dearly – in terms of our resources, our constitutional rights and protections, our values, and sense of who were are as a people. What steps can we take to redress the balance between liberty and security?

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