Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: Time For Targeted Profiling?


Conservative Fox News correspondent Judith Miller claims the targeted profiling of American Muslims could have prevented the Boston bombings.

Miller's op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, released last Wednesday, briefly thanks Boston's first responders before launching into a conjectured hypothetical about how authorities might have intercepted the attacks. She makes comparisons between Boston and New York, where the NYPD has had an active and controversial counterterrorism division running since 9/11. It is an ongoing debate that's been central since the Patriot Act, though rarely applied so tightly or strictly on an individual community. 

New York, she writes, "has developed a counter terror program that is a model of how to identify and stop killers like the Tsarnaev brothers before they strike. The 1,000 cops and analysts who work in the NYPD's intelligence and counterterrorism divisions, for instance, would likely have flagged Tamerlan Tsarnaev for surveillance …"

Miller notes that Tamerlan's past has included a number of suspicious events that likely would have drawn the attention of a Boston-based counter terror agency, including a 2011 warning by Russia that he could become dangerous, and the eviction from his local mosque, the Islamic Society of Boston, after getting into a shouting match with his imam. She also cites a report from Mitchell Silber and Arvin Bhatt, both former NYPD analysts, who released a 2006 report called "Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat." In it, they claim that future terrorist plots would come from "unremarkable" U.S. citizens who had undergone rapid radicalization in America. "The Internet," the report reads, "is a driver and enabler for … radicalization."

But the NYPD program, funded in part by the White House and set up with help from the CIA, has been widely discredited as a waste of resources and violation of privacy. In a sweeping, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of the program, the Associated Press revealed undercover "mosque crawlers" being planted in area mosques, wide-spread neighborhood surveillance, and the monitoring of Muslim students in colleges and universities — both within the city and outside of it. 

"The AP also determined that police subjected entire neighborhoods to surveillance and scrutiny, often because of the ethnicity of the residents, not because of any accusations of crimes. Hundreds of mosques and Muslim student groups were investigated and dozens were infiltrated."

It's a nothing to fear, nothing to hide mentality that has had New York City Muslims in a difficult position for years. Local imams have long been forced to strategically plan responses to complicated events such as the Boston Bombings, walking the narrow line between standing up for their communities from public backlash, and being the humble and apologetic face of a group that frequently finds itself in the cross-hairs.

A 50-page report titled "Mapping American Muslims" published by the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility Project (CLEAR), illustrates just how much the NYPD program has cost Muslim communities in the city: "We have found that surveillance of Muslims' quotidian activities has created a pervasive climate of fear and suspicion, encroaching upon every aspect of individual and community life. Surveillance has chilled constitutionally protected rights — curtailing religious practice, censoring speech and stunting political organizing."

Lt. Paul Galati, in August of 2012, "admitted during sworn testimony that in the six years of his tenure, the unit tasked with monitoring American Muslim life had not yielded a single criminal lead."

So what does Miller expect? Is it possible that a Boston-based counterterrorism program could have intercepted the Tsarnaev brothers? Probably. But is it worth the rights and liberties thousands of Muslims in the area — in addition to huge costs of money and manpower? And more concerning still to conservatives and liberals alike, would a program like this be worth further expanding the never-ending scope of executive powers?

The line between safety and liberty is a delicate one that we have yet to get right — but that doesn't validate the profiling of an already stigmatized minority group. It would behoove law enforcement going forth to make an effort to understand and build relationships with Muslim communities, but even more, to understand the process of radicalization — both Islamic and otherwise.