For weeks now, reporters have been buzzing about the “strange bedfellows”—from Tea Party right and Glenn Greenwald left—who have joined forces to challenge the government’s power to spy. “Terrorism policies have a way of jarring the usual left-versus-right categories,” declared NBC. Or as Greenwald himself asked in 2011, “Is there potential for a right-left alliance” against the national security state?
I’m skeptical. On domestic drones and NSA surveillance, some liberals and conservatives are indeed joining forces. But the sad truth about the much-heralded left-right civil-liberties coalition is it will be least effective where it is needed most. The reason is simple: the Tea Party is not a libertarian movement. It’s a nativistlibertarian movement. It’s uninterested in defending the civil liberties of those political and cultural outsiders whose civil liberties face the greatest threat.
To understand what I mean, go back to January 2012, when Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), cofounder of the Senate’s Tea Party caucus, was detained by Transportation Security Administration officials after refusing a pat-down at the Nashville airport. In response, the senator’s father, former Rep. Ron Paul, said something unintentionally revealing. “The elderly. The disabled. Little kids,” he thundered. “All victims of an out-of-control police state.”
The elderly. The disabled. Little kids? If America’s become a “police state” in recent years, those aren’t the demographic groups that have been feeling its wrath. Last year, the Associated Press won a Pulitzer Prize for revealing that the New York Police Department, with help from the CIA, had “subjected entire neighborhoods to surveillance and scrutiny” and “infiltrated” dozens of student groups and houses of worship, without any evidence that the residents or members had committed crimes. The NYPD wasn’t targeting retirement villages and Girl Scout troops. It was targeting Muslims.
Between 2002 and 2011, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, the NYPD also stopped and questioned New Yorkers more than 4 million times, 90 percent of whom were completely innocent. Almost 90 percent of those stoppedwere African-American or Latino. For its part, Arizona in 2010 gave police vast new powers to stop suspicious-looking people and demand to see their papers. And, contra Ron Paul, they weren’t targeting people in wheelchairs.
As has happened throughout our history, the people who have suffered most from the expansion of state surveillance since 9/11 have been members of unpopular and marginal groups. But for the most part, when Tea Partiers warn about a “police state,” they’re not worried about Muslims, African-Americans, and Latino immigrants. After the AP report about NYPD spying on Muslims, for instance, 34 members of Congress signed letters urging the Justice Department to investigate and the House Judiciary Committee to hold hearings. But as Yasmine Taeb and Isaac Levey of the Arab American Institute have noted, not a single Republican was among the signers. In May 2012, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) offered an amendment urging the Obama administration to stop funding police programs that violate federal anti-discrimination laws. House Republicans voted against it 224-16.
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