Mere hours after the horrifying attack in Nice, France on Thursday night, politicians and pundits began speculating about the religion of the attacker and calling for increased scrutiny of the Muslim community. Responding to the attack on Fox News, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) seized the opportunity to push mass surveillance of Muslim Americans, saying that holding back would be a “sign of weakness.”
U.S. intelligence agencies must “surveil the Muslim communities, watch them more carefully,” he said. “We have to forget about hurting people’s feelings…the fact is there are people out there who want to kill us.”
“We have to be looking at the Muslim community. We have to be calling on them to make sure they cooperate and step forward,” he said, arguing “that’s where the threat is coming from. You’re not violating anybody’s civil rights. It’s just common sense. That’s where it’s coming from.”
Mass surveillance of Muslim Americans is a popular reaction to terrorist attacks, despite the fact that it’s a clear violation of the constitution. It’s also not even effective. After 9/11, the NYPD instituted precisely the kind of increased, targeted surveillance and pressure on Muslim Americans that King is calling for. In more than six years of surveillance, the NYPD’s program failed to produce a single viable lead. There’s also no evidence that the NSA’s broader dragnet surveillance dragnet of Americans has helped thwart terrorist attacks or yielded valuable information.
In fact, despite King’s implications that Muslims needs increased pressure to turn in radicalized elements, the single largest source of tips about terrorist plots come from the Muslim American community, according to a University of North Carolina study. According to the FBI, mass surveillance only destroys community trust and sets back counterterrorism efforts.
Rep. King, who currently chairs the subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, has a long history of stoking Islamophobia and calling for surveillance of Muslim Americans.
In 2015, King called for “24/7” surveillance of mosques, saying that if constitutionalists and civil liberties groups had a problem with it, they could “cry all they want.” In 2010, despite direct evidence to the contrary, King said on Fox News that mainstream Muslims and Islamic leaders “do not cooperate” with efforts to combat terrorism, also saying that he was “willing” to be called a a bigot if it meant he could continue targeting the Muslim community. At the time, King was the Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and had spearheaded a series of hearings on “Islamic Radicalism” that the American Civil Liberties Union dubbed “McCarthyism 2.0.”
King is hardly the only politician broadly targeting an entire religious group in the aftermath of the Nice attack. Minutes after the attack — and before a suspect had been identified, or any group had claimed responsibility — Donald Trump condemned Muslims and immigrants. He also claimed that the U.S. would admit at least 10,000 unscreened Syrian refugees who “may be ISIS” by the end of the year. In reality, Syrian refugees undergo one of the most stringent screen processes before coming to the United States, a process that can take anywhere from 18-24 months.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, called for “testing” Muslim Americans and deporting them if they “believe in Sharia,” which he called “incompatible with Western civilization.”
By now, holding the entire Muslim community responsible for terrorist attacks is hardly new. However, experts say that rhetoric equating ISIS and other radical extremists with the entirety of Islam and casting it as a “clash of civilizations,” plays right into ISIS’ hands. It also drives an increasing cycle of violence — since the terrorist attacks in Paris last year, there has been an unprecedented spike in anti-Muslim incidents in the United States.