Just hours after attacks by Islamic State (ISIS) extremists in Brussels, Belgium, presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) seized the opportunity to call for more intense police surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods in the U.S.
In a statement on the bombings of the Brussels airport and a subway station that killed at least 31 people, Cruz vowed to end the “political correctness” he believes is endangering Americans. Along with stepping up security at the Mexican border and refusing refugees, “we need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized,” the senator said.
Mass surveillance of Muslim Americans is a popular response to terrorist attacks, even though it violates the Constitution. Cruz’s primary competitor, Donald Trump, has called for a federal database of Muslims in the U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who was considered the favored “establishment” candidate before he dropped out, also advocated for a crackdown on mosques, cafes, and “any place where radicals are being inspired.”
Though extreme, these aren’t new ideas. After the September 11 attacks in New York, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft required men from predominantly Muslim Middle Eastern countries and between the ages of 16 and 65 to register with the government.
Over the next decade, the New York Police Department actually tried the kind of intensive neighborhood surveillance that Cruz is proposing — to disastrous ends. A special police unit secretly spied on Muslim Americans and immigrants in New York and beyond their jurisidiction in New Jersey. The NYPD program targeted students and worshipers and even used undercover informants to try to bait community members into criminal activity. Some young people were threatened with arrest if they refused to spy on their peers.
Yet the intensive surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods that the Republican candidates have pledged to instate can only backfire. The NYPD’s surveillance program failed to produce a single viable lead. There’s also zero evidence that broader surveillance by the National Security Agency has yielded any valuable information to identify or thwart terrorist attacks.
In fact, the most useful source of information about possible terrorist activity are Muslims themselves. A University of North Carolina study found that the single largest source of tips about terrorist plots come from the Muslim American community. Mass surveillance only damages that pipeline. According to the FBI, news of the NYPD spying program destroyed community trust in law enforcement and set back counterterrorism efforts.