Posted by on August 14, 2014 in Blog

By Emily Cooke
Summer Intern, 2014

The indiscriminate finger-pointing and senseless name-calling traditionally reserved for elementary school playgrounds is apparently lent a certain credibility in Washington—the kind that allows government agencies to designate terror suspects without regard for concrete facts or irrefutable evidence.

The details of classified government documents revealing the scope of the United States’ Terrorist Screening Database were brought to light in an article published by the Intercept just last week. Reports suggest that a striking 680,000 people have garnered a spot on the watchlist of supposed terrorists as part of a terror-monitoring system that has witnessed unprecedented expansion in the years since President Obama took office.

These documents, prepared by the National Counterterrorism Center and assumedly leaked from within the intelligence community, awarded Dearborn, Michigan second place in an infamous contest no city wants to win—the battle for the highest concentration of individuals designated as “known or suspected terrorists”.

Dearborn, a city of just 96,000, is an unmistakable outlier among New York, Houston, San Diego, and Chicago, four urban centers also noted for high concentrations of “suspected terrorists”. Coincidentally, Dearborn ranks first on another list, as the city with the largest percentage of Arab American residents in the country. It is this statistic that likely, but problematically, explains Dearborn’s newest claim to infamy.

According to the government’s official watchlist guidelines, “reasonable suspicion” alone is enough to land individuals on the longwinded list shared with local law enforcement, private contractors, and foreign governments. In the case of Dearborn, it seems that reasonable suspicion is fast becoming the guise of deliberate stereotyping, wrongly entangling Arab Americans in a web of ties to terrorism.

Nabih Ayad is an attorney, board chairman of the Arab American Civil Rights League, and just one among many Arab Americans in Dearborn incensed by the government’s newest display of crediting stereotypes over concrete facts. Ayad condemned the suspected terror list for “playing into the negative stereotypes that Americans already have against Arabs,” and for slighting the Arab men and women who work hard every day.

Similar outrage resonated on the steps outside Dearborn City Hall on Friday, as Arab American community leaders gathered for a news conference where they branded the watchlist as unfounded, unfair, and entirely unjust. This sentiment also manifested in a letter to Rep. John Conyers, as leaders implored the Congressmen to file an inquiry with the Justice Department regarding the surveillance of Arab Americans and American Muslims living in Dearborn.

At best, additions to the watchlist predicated solely upon reasonable suspicion, or merely profiling for short, epitomize a condemnable waste of resources.  At worst, the watchlist subjects Arab Americans, not only in Dearborn, but throughout the United States, to a supremely personal degradation at the hands of their own government.

Governmental efforts to combat terrorism are, first and foremost, designed to safeguard American lives and the freedoms that make these lives complete. To sanction negative stereotyping, as the terror watchlist does in allowing additions founded upon suspicion alone, is to effectively posit Arab American rights and freedoms as inferior to those of other United States citizens.

The terror watchlist is important to U.S. officials for the individuals it explicitly names, but it is decidedly more important to view the terror watchlist for what it so tragically obscures. It ignores those like Abdallah Nahdi, an Arab American and Dearborn resident who, in the midst of the scrutiny that has befallen his community, still passionately avowed, “this is my country and I will fight for this country.”

If the United States government is really serious about thwarting terrorism, then perhaps it is high time for officials to consider a different, more important list—one that accounts for the many Arab Americans already passionately allied in the fight against terror.

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