Thursday, June 13, 2013

Mohamad Tabbaa: Suddenly, white people care about privacy incursions

June 13, 2013
There is an elephant in the room which needs to be addressed in this discussion, one which will no doubt cause much backlash and reap accusations of all sorts and from the best of people, as such elephants often do. It is difficult to raise this issue due to its sensitive nature, and particularly at such a sensitive time – which is precisely why it is so important to do so.

In spite of this sensitivity, let me outline the case: the issue of excessive surveillance is not new – the only new aspect here is that it now encompasses a larger population; specifically, white America. It needs to therefore be asked as to whether this is the real reason for all the spontaneous outrage of late.

Since the events of September 11 and the proliferation of anti-terror laws enacted around the world, Muslims have been subjected to the very violations which are now the scene of such fierce protest globally. These tactics of surveillance and control have been carried out with much disclosure and in public knowledge. They have been publicized, discussed, justified and ultimately accepted as – at the very least – “necessary evils.” As early as 2001, then-president George W. Bush made no secret of these draconian powers when signing The Patriot Act: “This new law that I sign today will allow surveillance of all communications used by [suspected] terrorists, including e-mails, the Internet, and cell phones.”

This same legislation being used today to justify the PRISM surveillance powers, which the Obama administration is now considering revising as a result of these protests, has already been explicitly in use against Muslims for over a decade. The extent of surveillance used against Muslims in that time is nothing short of disturbing. Director of Muslim Advocates, a U.S. legal advocacy organisation, Farhana Khera, sums it up well:
Today, the FBI can show up at your work, unannounced, to interrogate you about an article on political events you post on Facebook, or seize information about your phone calls, e-mails, internet activity and medical and banking records — all without a shred of evidence that you’ve engaged in criminal activity.
On the ten year anniversary of the legislation, Khera’s organisation published a report detailing the loss of liberty Muslims faced due to The Patriot Act. The details are unsettling. Between the years of 2001-2005 alone, almost 500,000 Muslims were interviewed by the FBI, with none of these interviews leading to information that might detect or prevent terrorist attacks, thus suggesting unwarranted suspicion. Unsurprisingly, this means that today, “it is difficult to find an American Muslim who has not had one of these encounters with law enforcement, or knows someone who has.” As of the date of the report, 2011, the FBI had an astounding 15,000 spies and informants, mainly targeting the Muslim community, and as many as 45,000 “unofficial” informants. The main task behind these operations is intelligence-gathering and surveillance, of the sort now being opposed.

The difference between these surveillance tactics used against Muslims, and the ones causing today’s controversy, are not as great as they may seem. The form might be slightly different, but the reality remains the same: they both contravene fundamental rights to privacy, undermine the rule of law in the same manner, lack the basics of transparency, and, as seen above, do not require reasonable suspicion (the fact of being or looking Muslim appears to be suspicion enough). Phone, email, even library borrowing records are not simply collected, as is the fear currently, but are then used to build a case for prosecution. The ongoing surveillance of Muslims is thus not simply a matter of a lack of privacy, but can result in severe curtailment of liberties, and in extreme cases, death.

And these powers have since evolved – as was inevitable – well beyond the simplicities of mere surveillance to include deliberate cases of FBI entrapment, which have resulted in innocent people being sentenced to decades in prison. In one case in 2009, four young Muslim men were sentenced to 25 years prison each, after the FBI created a fake terror plot and offered to pay them for assistance in carrying it out. In the United Kingdom, the government has been busy revoking the citizenship status of Muslim Britons on national security grounds, with two such ex-citizens then killed by drone attacks.

And this is only what is happening on home soil, ignoring the extremities of Guantanamo Bay, or the recent assassinations of four American citizens by their own government, all of which are based on the same tactics of intelligence-gathering and spying causing this week’s anger. These violations against Muslims, however, have not caused the same uproar as we today witness.

To be fair, there have been some protests, by the likes of Glenn Greenwald, who now leads the charge against this latest case of security services gone wild. Greenwald and certain others cannot be faulted therefore on consistency.

However, the intensity and popularity of these current protests are entirely disproportional to the revelations faced when compared to their prolonged use against Muslim and other communities. People are now outraged at the potential that their private conversations are being watched. Well, let me again welcome you to the world of a Muslim, where that fear is not a fear but a common reality.

Muslims do not simply fear that they are under surveillance; they know it – and even when it’s not true. The psychology induced by the fear and knowledge of being constantly watched is crippling. It produces a modality of submission to the violence of authority and acceptance of the excesses of state power, of the sort now being protested by many. This is no doubt difficult for those with a privileged status to understand, but for many minority groups it will sound all too familiar, as will the accusations of derailing the conversation which will no doubt ensue.

Indeed, many minority communities have long ago lost their supposed ‘right’ to privacy, and have lived with the daunting specter of excessive surveillance and over-policing for a prolonged period. The extreme over-representation of people of colour in prison systems and crime statistics is clear testament to this inconvenient fact.

One must ask then: on what basis is this outrage being justified now if this has been a common occurrence for numerous other communities?
Read the rest here.

Mohamad Tabbaa is a PhD Candidate in Criminology & Law at The University of Melbourne.
Comment: This is an excellent article that presses a layered argument and reality that must be engaged.

To be fair there are white people who vehemently protest against what Glenn Greenwald and others call the US "surveillance state" and its consequences for Muslims inside and outside the US.

But that is not really the pressing point of Mohamad Tabbaa's argument.  The point is that on average most white Americans have hardly noticed how the US government has ramped up its surveillance, harassment, and oppression of Muslims since 9/11.

The reason is that a large proportion of these folks are simply not affected and, worse, could care less - well until now that is.

So now that the revelations made public by Edward Snowden is on the table it is no longer an issue entirely outside whiteness.

It is now not only a fact that the US government is watching Muslims it is also a fact that they are watching all Americans.

But to take the argument just a little further one must ask so what.  I mean do we really expect that Obama and company care about the nude pictures your partner sent you or the dirty emails you send to co-workers?

I think as the dust settles the issue of surveillance is still very much decided on racist selection.

Muslims are the selected enemy and they will be watched much like they have been watched by federal, state and local authorities since 9/11.

In New York the state police has been casing mosques and planting informants to find terrorists and terrorist sympathizers.

Millions of dollars later and not one has been found.

Congress under Representative Peter King convened hearings to decide on what makes a Muslim a terrorist.

In as many years as white America has settled onto the original peoples of Turtle Island there has never been a commission that has sought to find out what makes white people racist.

The truth is that whiteness hovers above the consequences of racism.  And in this case most whites have not been harassed and for the most part their hovering has a lot to do with the nonsense that the surveillance state is keeping them safe.

For this reason it is not surprising to see how many whites have simply added Islamophobia to their lexicon of privilege.

So Mohamad Tabbaa is absolutely right to ask why the outrage is so public and intense since the PRISM revelations.

The further question is to what extent will whiteness retract the surveillance state and still keep Muslims under surveillance.

I mean it is important not to conflate this moment with the greater realization that what the US has been doing to Muslims is an affront to the values of democracy.

At this point the public outcry is more selfish in white terms.  In other words, white folks are worried about their privacy - they really do not want you to know about the contents of their emails or voicemails.

That worry may disappear very soon especially if the US can craft another security crisis of the Muslim kind.

Well then most of the public outcry will likely subside 'cause Joe Sixpack knows it's the Mooslims who are the real enemies of freedom and not war criminals and fascists like Obama.


White suburban soccer moms love NSA surveillance!
All is good for white America with mom and apple pie
UPDATE (June 14): See Professor Falguni A. Sheth's excellent article at Salon entitled: "White suburban soccer moms love NSA surveillance!"

The article picks up some of the same themes of discussion above and poses the assertion that most of white America will not fear greater surveillance because they see themselves as normative and not in violation of the law.

In fact a poll already bears out this assertion though race is not singled out. 

See the Pew Research poll that find 56% of Americans in favor of NSA phone tracking.

Terrorists, of course, are those brown 'Muslimy' people and they deserve to be watched.
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