Profiling Muslims Was Wrong After 9/11—And It'd Be Wrong to Use It to Fight White Supremacy Now | Opinion

The tragic attacks earlier this month reminded the nation what many have long known to be true: Most violent domestic terrorism now originates from white supremacists, according to multiple and varied sources. And yet despite the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, carried out by a white male, I am acutely aware that my white friends and neighbors may go on with their lives without the fear that they will be affected by anger over the white identity they share with the perpetrator—a privilege that my Muslim, Arab and South Asian friends and neighbors cannot enjoy whenever somebody of the same faith or ethnic background carries out a terrorist attack.

Here are some, but not all, of the things that won't befall my white friends and neighbors post-El Paso (or Charleston, Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, Christchurch, Poway, Gilroy and the like):

Not having to endure the above, not having to endure guilt by association, sure seems like white privilege to me.

Race and identity are the only reasons why my white friends may carry on with their lives after El Paso without worry, but my Muslim, Arab and South Asian friends could not after Paris. Or El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, for that matter. In the days following those shootings, a Muslim-owned business in California had the words "No Muslims" spray painted on it. Another business in Connecticut was defaced the words "Muslims go home."

So how do we move forward? The answer is not that we should treat white supremacists like we treated suspected terrorists after 9/11, as some argue. To overcome white supremacy, we do not need, nor should we want, a bigger, more intrusive national security state.

I say this for three reasons. First, we already have ample legal tools to defeat white supremacist violence. There are already 51 domestic anti-terrorism laws on the books—more than enough to investigate and prosecute violent white supremacists. Moreover, we should be wary of giving the federal government even more emergency powers to surveil whole populations, particularly since structural bias has consistently led to these laws inevitably being overused on communities of color.

Second, the post-9/11 experience demonstrates that broad profiling and surveillance are highly ineffective and end up creating more problems than they solve. For years, the New York City Police Department engaged in mass surveillance of Muslims in New York City: Muslims eating chicken, Muslims walking in the park, Muslims going to the ATM, Muslims dropping their kids off at school. That colossal waste of time led to zero arrests. Over time, what investigators learned is that constitutional, rights-respecting investigations based on reasonable suspicion is what works. Moreover, some of our worst excess after 9/11 lent terrorist recruiters the rhetorical ammunition they needed to make their case to confront the United States with further violence.

Third, it is just plain wrong to deprive whole classes of people their rights in the name of security. When we do, we lose the very idea of the United States, with liberty and justice for all, we are trying to protect in the first place.

So how should we address this scourge? First, the federal government must make combating violent white supremacists a clearly articulated policy priority. Until the Monday after El Paso, President Donald Trump, who has fanned the flames of hatred with virulent rhetoric, had not identified white supremacy as an issue in American life. The Department of Homeland Security disbanded a group of domestic terrorism intelligence analysts this past spring and last year canceled grants to counter white supremacist terrorism. These moves should be reversed immediately, and law enforcement, with support from the White House, needs to make this fight a core mission.

Second, the scope of white supremacist violence needs to be better understood. In 2017, Senator Richard Durbin introduced the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which would require federal agencies to prepare an annual report on domestic terrorism and the ways in which the federal government allocates resources to combat it. At present, the FBI is unable to report reliably on how many white supremacist attacks are occurring each year because the way it tracks this information has shifted with time and the political winds. You cannot solve a problem you don't understand.

Virgil El Paso
Attendees hold up the flashlights on their phones during a community memorial service for the 22 victims of the mass shooting at Southwest University Park in El Paso, Texas, on August 14. Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty

Last but perhaps most important, it's critical to recognize that fixing this problem is a long-term struggle. Many understandably focus on the politics of the 2020 presidential race. But defeating white supremacy is about more than one election and more than one man. Eventually, an overwhelming majority of Americans must believe that an inclusive America is better than an America for whites only.

What binds us together as a nation must be mutually agreed-upon ideas about liberty and equality rather than an ancient common history, religion or culture. That's the promise of our Constitution. That's an America that's worth fighting for, an America that will allow our Muslim, Arab and South Asian friends and neighbors be able to breathe as easily as their white counterparts after a terrorist attack. An America that truly offers liberty and justice for all.

Amardeep Singh is a senior program officer with Open Society-U.S. at the Open Society Foundations. Follow him on Twitter @amarHoboken.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.