Post-9/11 Policing: We Can Keep Our Communities Safe and Protect Civil Liberties

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This year, we mark the twentieth anniversary of September 11th, 2001 and the events that changed the course of our history forever. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, we witnessed the incredible courage and resilience of survivors, their families, and the American people. This weekend, we honor the memories of those lost on that day and affirm our obligation to first responders and volunteers still grappling with significant health issues tied to the environmental hazards of their work. 

In two decades, our nation has changed dramatically. Four commanders-in-chief have overseen U.S. military operations launched in the months following the attacks. The final American troops departed Afghanistan mere days ago, exacerbating an international refugee crisis that is again testing our commitment to welcoming the stranger

Domestically, we continue to become increasingly diverse – religiously, culturally, linguistically – to the benefit of all. But as we reflect on these shifts, we must also reckon with the ways in which our national response to the September 11th attacks made many Americans less safe, particularly Muslim, Sikh, and Arab-American communities who became targets for hate-based violence and government surveillence. As we face the growing threat of domestic white supremacist movements, now is the time to take stock of the ways in which our government failed to live up to our highest ideals in a post-9/11 world.

Programs Developed Through the “War on Terror” Police American Muslims, Progressive Activists, and Other Minority Groups 

By September 16th, 2001, President George Bush was already fielding questions about the impact of enhanced surveillance on Americans’ civil liberties. He responded, in part, saying “this crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while. And the American people must be patient. I’m going to be patient.” A few days later, in a televised address before a joint session of Congress, President Bush used the term “war on terror” to describe the nation’s response to the perpetrators of the attacks and beyond. 

The war on terror – at times defined through religious rhetoric like Bush’s “crusade” – came to embody a military and national security policy with few boundaries and ambiguous opponents. As then-Attorney General John Ashcroft testified on September 24, 2001, “we are asked to wage war against terrorism within our own borders. Today we seek to enlist your assistance, for we seek new laws against America’s enemies, foreign and domestic.”    

Twenty years later, the laws and programs developed under this charter have had devastating effects on the safety and civil liberties of American communities targeted by law enforcement. The New York City Police Department faced allegations of religious profiling and unlawful surveillance of hundreds of mosques, community centers, and individuals, eventually agreeing to major structural changes via settlement in 2017. And as recently as December 2020, the Supreme Court rendered a decision in a case involving American Muslim men pressured to become FBI informants who were later placed on the No Fly list when they refused.  

In the years following President Bush’s declaration, domestic counterterrorism programs utilized new surveillance and policing tools that, without sufficient intentionality and course correction, continued to disproportionately target communities of color. President Barack Obama rejected the term “war on terror” in 2013 but supported “Countering Violent Extremism” programs that replicated many of the missteps of their predecessors. These measures focused on investigating “extremist” ideologies, which extended beyond law enforcement’s focus on crime and violence. These policies used ideology as an indicator for potential violence, allowing federal authorities to investigate and harass individuals and groups, even in the absence of actual violence or the threat of violence. 

Over time, law enforcement agencies have used methods to surveil Black and Brown activists beyond counterterrorism efforts. For instance, authorities recently used electronic surveillance measures to collect the personal information of Black activists and groups like Black Lives Matter that protest police brutality. Law enforcement has targeted these movements, despite very few instances of violence have been linked to members of these movements. Police surveillance of those fighting against structural racism and police brutality reminds us that these tools continue to pose serious threats to civil rights. 

After the September 11th attacks, government agencies focused resources and attention on international terrorism linked to the Taliban, Al-Queda, and other related extremist movemets. National security prioritized identifying domestic links to these groups, often leading to the stigmatization and targeting of American Muslims. But these practices created a blindspot in which white supremacist groups could organize without meaningful interference from law enforcement.

Protecting Our National Security Means Addressing Violent White Supremacist and Anti-Democratic Groups

The January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol building brought the threat of violent white supremacy to the forefront. But the threat is hardly a new one. A 2017 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office revealed that 73% of lethal extremists attacks in the United States since 9/11 were perpetrated by far-right extremists. 

Today, white supremacist violence remains the greatest domestic threat facing the United States. But in seeking to keep our communities and country safe, we must not repeat the mistakes of the past. Instead of reinforcing post-9/11 counterterrorism policies and programs that threaten our civil rights, law enforcement should refocus resources and attention to investigate and prosecute white supremacist violence. 

In the wake of the January 6th attack, Interfaith Alliance joined 155 other civil rights organizations in calling on Congress to oppose a new domestic terrorism charge and expanding the existing authority of law enforcement. Instead, we urged Congress to hold law enforcement accountable for how they use current resources to fight white supremacist violence. 

Looking Ahead, We Can Protect Our Civil Liberties and Keep Our Communities Safe 

All of us – no matter who we are or how we worship – deserve to feel safe in our communities. And as we reflect on the ways our nation has changed in the twenty years since the September 11th attacks, we are presented with the urgent challenge of addressing violent white supremacist groups and anti-democratic organizing that directly threaten our national security. 

Instead of reinforcing policies used to surveil Black and Brown communities, law enforcement agencies should focus existing resources where they are needed most. We have the tools we need to keep our communities safe. Now is the time to learn from the mistakes of our recent past and commit to protecting the freedoms and civil liberties of all.

Learn about Interfaith Alliance’s efforts to combat hate and discrimination.