MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 20

International Socialist Review, November–December 2001


The war at home:
Racial profiling and the assault
on civil liberties


From International Socialist Review, Issue 20, November–December 2001.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


WITHIN MINUTES of the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, the attacks began. From the thousands of telephone threats called in to mosques, Muslim community centers, and schools, to hundreds of actual physical attacks, anyone who “looked” or “sounded” Arab or Muslim was a target for harassment, intimidation, or physical attack.

Since September 11, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has documented more than 700 reports of hate crimes nationwide, six of them resulting in death. In Mesa, Arizona, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a 49-year-old Sikh, was shot to death outside his gas station – no doubt because he wore a turban. In San Gabriel, California, an Egyptian was gunned down in his import shop. In Fresno, California, four teenagers shot Abdo Ali Ahmed, a 51-year-old convenience-store owner who had migrated to the U.S. more than 30 years ago and had eight children, to death.

Many more acts of violence have taken place, including the shooting of worshippers at a Seattle mosque on September 13, the arson of a Pakistani restaurant in Salt Lake City, and numerous beatings and physical attacks all around the country.

In addition to the violent attacks, there have been countless acts of discrimination against Arabs and Muslims – as in the case of Mohammad Mansour, an Iraqi immigrant who was told he could no longer be a lunchroom volunteer at his children’s elementary school. Arab and Muslim passengers at airports across the nation have been harassed, interrogated, and, in some cases, prevented from boarding airplanes due to the “fear” of crew and other passengers. At least two flights, one Northwest and one United, were delayed because the crews and other passengers refused to take off before Arab travelers were removed from the planes.

Particularly at airports, but certainly on a broader scale, racial profiling has been swiftly rehabilitated in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Commentators on the left and right, while wringing their hands, claim that the country has no choice but to place higher suspicion on those who “look” Arab or Muslim.

“There is an empirically responsible way of generating profiling. It has to be based on good intelligence collection and analytical capabilities,” says Richard Bloom, director of terrorism, intelligence, and security studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona.

Michael Kinsley, a liberal commentator, perversely compares racial profiling to affirmative action – though they have opposite purposes. He asks, “Are we really supposed to ignore the one identifiable fact we know about them?” referring to means of locating terrorists – ignoring the obvious fact that Caucasian men weren’t profiled after the Oklahoma City bombing.

Peggy Noonan, former Reagan speechwriter, does these two one better. In a column in the Wall Street Journal titled Profiles encouraged: Under the circumstances, we must be wary of young Arab men, she writes of calling the FBI to report two “mideastern looking men” that she sees videotaping a building on the street. She eventually realizes that “we know the profile of the bad guys – young, male, and from the Arab Mideast,” and she “was relieved at the story of the plane passengers a few weeks ago who refused to board if some Mideastern looking guys were allowed to board.”

So when George Bush throws a couple of lines about tolerance into his speeches and tells school kids that we shouldn’t discriminate – then rants that he wants Osama bin Laden “dead or alive” – it rings hollow.

As the ISR went to press, the U.S. had detained more than 1,000 people since September 11 – and not one had been charged in the World Trade Center or Pentagon attacks. Officials had offered no public evidence of any detainee’s involvement in the plot or released any information about the status of their cases or the names of their attorneys. Four hundred of those detained had been cleared of any terrorist involvement by authorities but remained in custody for anything from immigration to traffic violations.

The FBI, frustrated in its attempts to get information from a few of those detained, has admitted it may resort to truth serum to get them to talk, or even to extraditing them to countries that employ harsher interrogation methods than the United States.

Civil liberties

The U.S. is using the antiterrorism crusade to increase the surveillance authority of government agencies. On October 26, Bush signed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing the Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act into law. Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Washington National Office says, “Included in the bill are provisions that would allow for the mistreatment of immigrants, the suppression of dissent and the investigation and surveillance of wholly innocent Americans.”

The legislation grants sweeping new powers to the FBI, CIA, and others, using a “secret court” – the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – as the governing authority for issuing warrants. Lest one think that this court might provide a badly needed check on FBI powers, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that “about the only thing known publicly about the seven-member panel created in 1978 that sits secretly in the basement of the Justice Department is that it has never rejected an FBI request for a secret warrant.”

Along with granting “roving wiretaps” – the ability to conduct electronic surveillance wherever a person goes, rather than in a specific location – the bill allows the following:

John Nichols notes in the Nation magazine that the legislation may make the payment of membership dues to political organizations a deportable offense. He also points out that it gives the attorney general and the secretary of state the power to designate domestic groups as terrorist organizations and to block any noncitizen who belongs to those groups from entering the country.

According to writer and activist Marty Jezer:

The most dangerous part of the bill is Section 803 of the Senate Bill which creates a new crime, that of “domestic terrorism.” Domestic terrorism is defined vaguely as to include the intention to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population” and to “influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.” Any political demonstration can be deemed coercive and intimidating, as can speech or writing. A demonstrator (or an undercover police agent) who throws a rock or damages property (already illegal under existing law) could provide the government with the pretext to charge demonstrators with an act of terrorism. Moreover, any person who provides assistance to the demonstrators would also be liable for prosecution as a terrorist. The provisions regarding “domestic terrorism” are not meant to protect the country from real terrorists. They are, instead, an intimidating and coercive threat to free speech and public assembly.

Last updated on 8 August 2022