An effective approach to homeland security finds terrorists based on the actions of individuals, not their religion. Targeting a single religious or ethnic group simply overloads already swamped intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
Additionally, as we have seen with a number of recent cases, there is no single “profile” of a terrorist or would-be terrorist. Recent cases include individuals as diverse as “Jihad Jane,” a white middle-aged woman who converted to Islam and traveled to Sweden to participate in the murder of Swedish artist Lars Vilks, and James Wenneker von Brunn, the elderly white supremacist who shot up the Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2009.
Targeting a single group is not only unproductive, it harms our national security. Al Qaeda has made the claim for years that Western civilization is at war with Islam and hostile to the religion itself. Anwar al Awlaki, a recruiter for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and one of the most charismatic of the organization’s spokesmen, has even made claims that American Muslims face a future of ever-worsening discrimination. He has stated that, "Yesterday, America was a land of slavery, segregation, lynching, and [the] Ku Klux Klan, and tomorrow it will be a land of religious discrimination and concentration camps … the war between Muslims and the West escalating." Government actions that target members of the religion – rather than focusing on the acts of individuals – only feed into this propaganda.
Perhaps most troubling, this approach results in ineffective law enforcement, which is an essential tool in our counterterrorism efforts. In addition to my research at the Center for National Policy, a non-partisan think tank, I also serve as a police commissioner for my hometown of Stonington, Connecticut. One thing that the law enforcement community has known for years is that the police cannot control crime alone. Building relationships with local communities is vital to effectively preventing and combating crime.
But if a community is being profiled by authorities, it is only natural that the community feels as if law enforcement sees every member as a potential suspect. The sense of being constantly suspect, even when clearly abiding by the law, only inhibits the cooperation that law enforcement authorities seek and depend on. For example, a 2006 study commissioned by the Department of Justice found that Arab Americans were significantly fearful and suspicious of federal law enforcement due to government policies. The study also found that both community members and law enforcement officers determined that diminished trust was the most important barrier.
Would Aliou Nasse, the Senegalese Muslim immigrant who sells photographs in Times Square, have alerted a nearby police officer about the smoke coming from an unattended SUV last May if he felt that he would be an automatic suspect? Would Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, father of the would-be Underwear Bomber, have worked with U.S. authorities if he felt that the United States Government was hostile to his religion or that it would have treated his son unfairly?
I will not speculate on Chairman King’s motives. The threat from terrorism is real. There should be hearings that examine the evolving threat and continually further our understanding of the phenomenon. As someone who has worked on both homeland and hometown security I can tell you one thing: alienating and targeting the part of the community that you are trying to protect is counterproductive to security goals, and the hearings as proposed only serve as a distraction from examining the real problems we face.
Scott Bates is the former Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee. He has worked in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf on democracy assistance missions. Bates is also Police Commissioner in his hometown of Stonington, CT. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org