Few Americans are surprised to hear that 9/11 shifted our domestic terrorism focus from neo-Nazis and white supremacists to Muslims in America. What may come as a surprise, however, is the pervasive use of anti-terrorism powers against non-Muslims as well, including white middle-class protesters - as we saw in the Occupy Movement.
The 9/11 terrorists' warped misinterpretation of Islam triggered a maelstrom of expanded national security powers selectively enforced against American Muslims en masse. Mosques are infiltrated with dubious and highly paid informants, thereby chilling religious freedom. Mentally unstable young Muslim men are targets of overzealous counterterrorism sting operations, and Muslim student associations are under mass surveillance for no apparent reason other than the religious identity of their members. Despite the serious civil liberties implications of such selective enforcement, it has occurred with minimal opposition by the American public.
Our shortsighted forfeiture of civil liberties based on fears of the "Muslim other" now equips our government to quash political dissent.
According to a state-by-state assessment by the American Civil Liberties Union, in at least 36 states, Americans have been put under surveillance or harassed by the police based on their participation in marches, protests and expressions of unusual viewpoints. Likewise, the former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Justice found that antiwar activists in Pittsburgh, animal rights advocates in Virginia and liberal Roman Catholics in Nebraska have been subjected to unlawful surveillance based on their political views and activities.
Thus, the coordinated efforts among state and local agencies in Joint Terrorism Task Forces to quash the Occupy protests were a predictable consequence of counterterrorism's scope creep.
At its peak in the fall of 2011, the Occupy Movement engaged hundreds of thousands of Americans across the country in nonviolent political protests about the egregious wealth disparities in the United States. When it came to responding to mass discontent, the American government proved it had a lot in common with Middle Eastern dictators.
The New York Police Department, among others, conducted mass group arrests without having probable cause to arrest the group. Agent provocateurs infiltrated the Occupy movement to disturb and disrupt civil political assembly. Similar to mosque congregants who made like complaints, protesters accused the police of entrapping young people who were mentally disabled, drug addicts or who had just experienced a traumatic personal experience. Like their Muslim counterparts, Occupy leaders were subjected to hostile interrogations by law enforcement agents visiting their homes before a protest.
The billions of dollars spent on increasing our government's domestic surveillance capabilities, ostensibly to protect Americans from "Islamist terrorists," is now used to spy on political protesters. In New York City alone, more than 3,000 cameras have been installed to feed into a control center housed in a secret location, and $150 million surveillance systems allowed the NYPD to closely monitor Occupy protests, identify targets for infiltration and ultimately chill political activity.
Hence the same playbook used to frighten Muslims from critiquing American policies or attending their mosques has now become the one used against the Occupy protesters. And the same national security powers expanded after 9/11 under the guise of keeping us safe from the Muslims are now enforced against political dissenters who challenge the economic inequities ailing our nation.
By believing in the fallacy of the "Muslim terrorist other," we weakened our resolve to protect fundamental American values. As a result, post-9/11 counterterrorism authorities are used to spy, infiltrate, entrap, arrest and aggressively prosecute any protesters.
When we allow governments to forfeit our civil rights to protect "us" from "them," we lose sight of how quickly we can become the "them."
So, how many more Americans must be subjected to civil liberties violations before we realize that no one is immune from creeping counterterrorism?
Sahar Aziz is an associate professor at the Texas Wesleyan School of Law and the author of "Caught in a Preventive Dragnet: Selective Counterterrorism in a Post-9/11 America."