Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall tried to tell us. “We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted Section 215 of the Patriot Act,” they wrote in a public letter to Attorney General Eric Holder last year. They were correct, both in thier warnings and in their judgement of the public’s stunned response. The senators are bound by oath from offering details, since the Obama administration’s collection of mass data about Americans’ phone calls and Internet communications is classified. But thanks to good journalism we know the truth this week: In the name of fighting terror, President Obama has continued and expanded George W. Bush’s secret trampling of basic civil liberties. The administration has routinely violated rights that American law and culture hold sacred and that this president has repeatedly claimed to defend.
But Wyden and Udall aren’t the only ones who’ve warned, loudly and repeatedly, that the national security apparatus is out of control, verging on lawlessness. Since 2001, Muslim American communities have been under siege. Religious and racial profiling has become the norm, from the FBI down to local police agencies. Some of the most shocking behavior—among the practices we know about, at least—has come from the New York Police Department. Following what we’ve now learned to be common logic at the federal level as well, NYPD has engaged in widespread, indiscriminate spying on Muslim residents across the Northeast. In mosques, universities, restaurants—wherever Muslims gather, NYPD has sent spies and collected information. Everyone making a life inside a Muslim community is guilty until proven innocent.
Muslim community leaders and civil liberties advocates have insisted this sort of preemptive surveillance is unjust and unproductive. But following the logic of the Obama administration, Ray Kelly and Mike Bloomberg insist they must spy on everyone they deem dangerous, because a terrorist could emerge at any moment.
Others have warned of this reckless expansion of “national security” as well. Like Muslim commmunities, immigrant communities of all sorts have been battered by it since 2001, and with particular force by this president. The Obama administration has deported more people than any previous one. It has done so using legally questionable enforcement programs that shrug in the direction of things like due process—of the systems we’ve created as a nation to protect residents from the whims of the state. Anecdotal evidence suggests detainees are deliberately housed in places that make it more difficult for them to access legal support. States and localities have been compelled to turn over to the feds information about people accused of crimes, in order to begin the deportation process. In one border-state program, which is poised to expand as part of the Senate’s immigration reform bill, detained immigrants are processed together in mass hearings that make a mockery of measured justice. They accept plea deals en masse and with limited legal counsel for the crime of crossing the border without authorization, deals that land them in detention for anywhere from a couple of weeks to 20 years. In fact, border crossing has been prosecuted with such haste and so little measure that, according to one study, “illegal entry” and “illegal re-entry” were the most prosecuted crimes in the federal judicial system in 2011, accounting for more than 70,000 prosecutions.
Immigration reform advocates have for years been warning that these processes are un-American. They have argued that the legal and political justifications for our breakneck deportation system degrades our basic values as a nation. But the administration has defended its deportation pipeline, successfully and with vigor, by draping it in national security. It is necessary, we are told, to keep us safe. We must violate our ideals to defend our laws and hold our border.
And we can’t stop with Muslims and immigrants. The same logic has long been used to justify the so-called war on drugs. Our political leaders long ago exempted many urban, black communities from due process protections. Our prisons and jails are filled today with hugely disproportionate numbers of black men and women not by accident, but because Congress and states passed laws that, like the Patriot Act, declared the state could do as it pleased when pursuing those it deemed dangerous. Prosecutors and police were given unchecked power; judges were stripped of their balancing authority. Today in New York City, in the name of keeping my neighborhood safe, the police routinely detain and search young black men with no more justification than their desire to do so.
It is comforting to believe these things have nothing to do with one another, to insist that the administration’s shocking spying program is a distinct issue from the trends we’ve witnessed in communities of color for years. But the logic used to defend secretly collecting the communications data of people not accused of any crime is the same logic used to defend NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program and Homeland Security’s deportation apparatus. The logic of “national security” was developed and honed by law enforcement practices inside communities of color. It is one of the more striking examples of a basic truth: racial injustice is cancerous; it eats the national body from the inside out.
“The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue,” the New York Times editorial board wrote in a withering June 6 op-ed. Indeed, but a fair review of the record must conclude that credibility was lost long ago, perhaps somewhere along the way to deporting 400,000 people a year via morally, if not legally questionable powers. It’s a cautionary tale for people across the ideological spectrum on state power. Injustice ignored will surely spread.