A State of Terror: How the Security State Came at the Expense of American Minorities

After 9/11, the United States experienced an expansion of security measures that were intended to create a safer, more secure nation. This has resulted in an almost incomprehensible web of security precautions that now pervade everyday American life — from increased airport security measures to the “if you see something, say something” campaignlaunched by the Department of Homeland Security. It has also fomented a more unwieldy layer of macro-scale surveillance and security measures that has created thousands of government organizations devoted to counterterrorism work, highly controversial covert surveillance programs, and two wars — excluding the so-called “war on terror” at home.

In the legacy of 9/11 and in the era of terrorist mania, where the security mechanisms and anti-terrorism infrastructure of the United States have intensified, the groups that have borne the greatest consequences of these measures have been minority groups.  As the security of the nation has expanded, the security of vast minority communities has shrunk — an implicit nod to the longstanding xenophobia and racism still prevalent in the American psyche. The legacy of counterterrorism left behind in our country has given the United States a legitimated and state-sanctioned means to perpetuate our historical fears of non-white America while allowing the new security state to serve only one part of the nation — the powerful white majority.

One group that has been affected by this post-9/11 xenophobia is the Muslim-American community in the United States. In 2000, according to the FBI, 28 hate crimes committed in the United States were found to be anti-Islamic. Just one year later, after the attacks on the World Trade Center, the number of anti-Islamic hate crimes soared to 481 attacks in 2001. The number of attacks remained above 100 in subsequent years and surged again with the emergence of anti-Muslim rhetoric surrounding the construction of an Islamic center in lower Manhattan.

But, more ubiquitous than attacks, this discrimination also takes on subtler undertones at airport security terminals with increased screen checks or in the form of daily verbal harassment. In other instances, this xenophobia is a systemic component of the security state itself. With the assistance of the CIA, the New York Police Department dispatched plainclothes policemen into Muslim communities throughout New York City as part of a surveillance program that often baited or manipulated community members into making inflammatory statements, trained video cameras on mosques, collected license plates, recorded sermons of imams and provided lists of who went to which sermons. The program was only recently disbanded this year. It did not result in any terrorist leads.  But even if the program had produced something — even if the intense racial profiling in airport security terminals had resulted in a “lead,” the framework of these programs place the burden of guilt on an entire people. Frail similarities within communities are suddenly taken to be implications in a threat to national security.

The attacks on the World Trade Centers left many Americans deeply paranoid of a comparable “invasion” by terrorists. This is not only evidenced by the social and political desire to police immigrants who were already in the United States, but also by the increased call to keep people out. This resulted in a massive increase of security in and around the border between the United States and Mexico. In the ten-year period that followed after 9/11, the United States spent some $90 billion on border patrol enforcement. The top priority of the US Border Patrol was “preventing terrorists and terrorists weapons…from entering the United States.” Deportations increased dramatically from 1.6 million in the decade prior to 9/11 to 2.3 million in the decade since. Measures like the Secure Border Initiative expanded the technological capabilities of border patrol security, normalizing the presence of sensors, radars and drones along the border. Other measures like Operation Streamline, the Secure Fence Act, and the Secure Communities program resulted in the transformation of the border into a physical warzone, criminalizing undocumented crossers and trying them through mass-hearings and fast-track prosecutions, and enacting increasingly harsher penalties and deportation practices for crossing the border.

As suspicion of the Muslim community in the United States led to increased surveillance, it also resulted in larger numbers of deported Muslim immigrants. But this trend of deportation in the name of quick-fix security also extended to other minority communities, ultimately hitting immigrants from Central America the heaviest. From 2001 to 2010, deportation as a whole increased by 104 percent. However, the Central American community saw a 430 percent increase in deportations — from 14,452 deportees in 2001 to 76,603 by 2010. This perception of “outsiders” as a threat to national safety has also spurred the formation of various vigilante border patrol groups. The most notable of these groups, the Minutemen, have been accused of several counts of murder — one of which involved the killing of a nine-year-old girl, Brisenia Flores, after a member of the Minutemen, Shawna Forde, led a gang of killers into her family’s home in Arizona.  This fomentation of “outsider” fear in a post-9/11 state allowed the actions of vigilante groups and state agents to be justified under the broad umbrella of “national security,” precipitating a sense of the necessity to protect oneself and the nation against an impending onslaught of outsiders at all costs. This fear of people beyond our borders created an implicit fear of individuals who did not fit the public image of an “American” and legitimated violent actions against them.  Increased deportations seen post-9/11 are evidence of this — of the 2.3 million individuals deported in the decade after 9/11, there have been only 37 deportations on terrorism grounds and only 15.2 percent had criminal violations. This indicates that the deportations, while veiled by claims of preventing terrorism, resulted in the exodus of non-threatening, non-terrorist immigrants from the United States, despite the language of the program designed to deter terrorism.

But what this also meant was that Americans who were already within the confines of the United States — who had been here long before the formation of the United States, but who did not fit the traditional image of an “American,” were also targeted. The public targeting and alienation of the African-American community in the United States after 9/11 through police militarization and violence was an implicit rejection of African-Americans from the public image of an “American.” It was not the refusal to believe that the Black community belonged in this country; it was that the Black community was seen as a historical menace and danger that needed to be controlled. It was a potential threat. Although police profiling of black men is not new, the increased police militarization post-9/11 has facilitated increased brutality and violence by police forces in Black communities across the nation. After 9/11, the perceived need for increased anti-terrorism ground forces led to the outfitting of police personnel with some $450 million worth of surplus military gear from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This militarization comes as part of a broader mandate by the Homeland Security Grant Campaign, a grant program established by the DHS, whose funds helped “sustain law enforcement terrorism prevention,” namely through the establishment of major urban area centers which were intended to provide them with “grassroots intelligence” and by funding the use of military-style equipment by police agencies. Though these weapons were meant to be combatting “grassroots” terrorism, they have been incorporated into everyday policing, the most recent evidence of which are the responses to the protests in Ferguson. The increased militarization of police forces has meant increased death and violence towards the Black and Latino communities they police. Since 9/11, about 5,000 Americans have been killed by U.S. police officers. If we look at racial statistics from police shootings in cities like New York and Las Vegas for comparison, as many as 50 percent of those dead since 2001 are likely to be black.

Yet this contraction of the security of minority communities in the United States goes largely unrecognized by the police bodies — both official and unofficial — that have sprung up to defend the nation and by the greater public. A larger mission of defending the nation has eclipsed any mention of the racialized effects of post-9/11 militarization and policing. As founder of the Minutemen, Jim Gilchrist, put it, “We’re just here to serve freedom, liberty and national sovereignty.”  Indeed, his fear of national safety is echoed in the mission statement of the DHS, “The vision of homeland security is to ensure a homeland that is safe, secure, and resilient against terrorism and other hazards.” The costs, whatever they may be, are calculated later.

This piece is part of BPR’s special feature on terrorism. You can explore the special feature here