What We’ve Learned Since 9/11

In order to make our world safer, we need to focus on factual evidence and real threats rather than target entire communities because of their ethnicity or religion.

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Mohammed el-Sioufi, vice president of the Islamic Culture Center, and his wife, Nagiba, are interviewed about the New York Police Department's surveillance of the Muslim community in Newark, New Jersey. (AP/Charles Dharapak)
Mohammed el-Sioufi, vice president of the Islamic Culture Center, and his wife, Nagiba, are interviewed about the New York Police Department's surveillance of the Muslim community in Newark, New Jersey. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

When people are forced to choose between protecting their safety and guarding their civil rights, almost everyone picks safety. After all, what good are rights if you’re injured or dead?

In the days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, many policymakers used this forced choice to argue for new surveillance laws such as the Patriot Act. The law gave the government sweeping new powers to spy on Americans by wiretapping, seizing financial records, tracking Internet activity, and more; but these measures, we were told, were a necessary trade-off for security.

The FBI also paid informants to infiltrate mosques and set up sting operations that were supposed to catch terrorists in our midst. Yes, the informants were sometimes the ones to suggest violent jihad in conversations with mosque goers.  In one case, members of a California mosque were so alarmed that they reported an informant to the FBI. But we were told that the “war on terror” demanded aggressive tactics.

Racial and religious profiling, particularly at airports, followed a similar pattern. Folks who looked “Muslim”—whatever that means—were more likely be to stopped, questioned, and detained based on nothing more than their name, clothing, or skin color. But hey, that was the price for keeping our country safe.

For too many Muslims living in America after 9/11, saying a prayer, attending worship, wearing a headscarf, joining a student organization, frequenting an ethnic restaurant, or participating in any number of everyday activities could trigger suspicion, and even arrest.

Twelve years after that terrible September day, it is worth recalling the premise of the choice presented to us—safety versus civil rights—because it was false. Targeting people who looked or sounded Muslim was tactically misguided and morally wrong. It wasted time and resources and distracted law enforcement officials from focusing on real evidence and threats. It risked alienating Muslim American communities rather than encouraging their civic engagement and partnerships with law enforcement. It gave credence to terrorists around the globe who pointed to the indiscriminate targeting of Muslim Americans as proof that America hated Islam and those who practiced the faith. Beyond all that, targeting a group of people because of their race, ethnicity, or religion was—and is—a serious violation of America’s core values of religious freedom and equal justice under the law.

Fortunately, we have learned some lessons over the past 12 years. Here are some things we now know.

  • Community mosques in this country, rather than being hotbeds of violent extremism, actually deter radicalization and extremism through a range of efforts, such as denouncing violence, providing youth programs, confronting extremists, and cooperating with law enforcement.
  • Muslim American communities are valuable allies in the efforts against violence extremism. Since 9/11, they have helped law enforcement officials prevent more than 40 percent of the Al Qaeda terrorist plots threatening America. In addition, these communities are diverse, socially engaged, and committed to democratic values.
  • Terrorists and the hate groups that sponsor many of them come in all shapes and colors, from white supremacists and border vigilantes to anti-abortion extremists and racist skinheads.

Given how important these lessons are, it is unfortunate that some groups still seem to be operating under the forced-choice premise that the best way to catch a terrorist is by targeting mosques and Muslim community centers.

Recent news reports reveal that the New York Police Department, for example, has conducted at least a dozen “terrorism enterprise investigations” over the past 12 years, in which they have gotten authorization to plant secret informants in local mosques and community centers, wiretap conversations, and build files on anyone who steps inside those buildings.

The NYPD even tried to plant an informant on the board of a local nonprofit that provides education and social services to immigrants. The Arab American Association of New York is a secular organization, and its executive director, Brooklyn-born-and-raised Linda Sarsour, works regularly with local officials and has won numerous awards, including one from the White House. But no matter: Sarsour and her nonprofit found themselves targeted by the NYPD despite zero evidence of wrongdoing. It’s worth noting that the NYPD’s spying program has produced no actual leads.

Unfortunately, the department has also been targeting black and Latino New Yorkers through its  stop-and-frisk  practice. Last month, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled the practice unconstitutional, calling it a form of racial profiling.

Besides being unconstitutional, stop-and-frisk is an extremely inefficient way to catch criminals, not to mention gain the trust of the community. A study by the New York office of the American Civil Liberties Union found that:

innocent New Yorkers have been subjected to police stops and street interrogations more than 4 million times since 2002 … and black and Latino communities continue to be the overwhelming target of these tactics. Nearly nine out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent, according to the NYPD’s own reports.

Criticizing racial and ethnic profiling is not being soft on crime or denying the reality of terrorism. New York City has many criminals. America has real enemies. The world is a dangerous place. The point is this: In order to make our cities, nation, and world safer, we need a smarter approach than targeting communities because of their race, ethnicity, or faith—a tactic that only makes the problem worse.

Studies show that working with communities through community-oriented policing and community-law enforcement partnerships works. Understanding the complex paths that lead to violent behavior is also important. And we need to challenge and debunk the anti-Muslim bigotry that feeds the attitudes and shapes the actions of law enforcement officials, policymakers, and the public at large.

The best way forward is not a forced choice between safety and civil rights. We do not have to sacrifice one for the other. Rather, upholding both is the best way to safeguard our national security and  protect our nation’s core values.

Twelve years ago today, 19 hijackers in four airplanes killed more than 3,000 men, women, and children on American soil. Heroic first responders—including brave police officers in New York—put the safety of others before their own, and many lost their lives in the line of duty. We owe it to them—and to all the victims—to put into practice the lessons we have learned since that day. Doing so is the best weapon in our arsenal to fight terrorism. It is the strongest proof we have that—although terrorists killed thousands that day—they have not been able to destroy our resilience or shred the fabric of our democracy.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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