On Sunday, the Associated Press reported that the New York Police Department actively “monitored” the Columbia Muslim Students Association, along with a dozen similar organizations at other universities in New York and the Northeast.
My initial reaction was indifference.
My second was shock—shock at my indifference. And then amazement—amazement that I could accept as mundane the idea that the people charged with our defense would actively engage in such an action. While their “monitoring” appears to have been limited to keeping daily tabs on CU MSA’s website, undercover cops were dispatched to meetings at other New York area schools. One undercover policeman even went on a camping trip with a Muslim group from the City College of New York. No outrage? No upsurge of protest? Are these things are to be expected? Have we already surrendered to the Orwellian police state? That appears to be the case. One MSA member who was interviewed claimed that she was “barely fazed” by the news—in fact, she expected it.
A quick polling of my friends revealed similar feelings, ranging from quiet acceptance to mild approval for the NYPD’s actions. This put me in a bit of a pickle. I normally find myself siding with the “national security” camp on these issues, but wasn’t this a step too far? I don’t think it’s a flight of liberal fancy to say that students should be able to go to a campus group meeting without fear of their activities being monitored by the police. Is it a stretch to draw parallels to the days of the Red Scare and blacklisting? Surely we have learned this lesson before. I am a firm believer in providing wide latitude to law enforcement, in giving them the tools they need to do their jobs well. But it is a strange day indeed when I find myself playing the Michael Moore to their Dick Cheney. Police monitoring of these groups is an affront to one of our most cherished freedoms: freedom of assembly. We have the right, especially as students, to listen and affiliate ourselves with non-threatening student groups without fear of reprisal. Isn’t that what Columbia is supposed to be about?
To hide behind the aegis of national security here is fraudulent. The NYPD claims that its action was justified because 12 people with links to Muslim terrorist groups were part of Islamic student groups while in school. I don’t doubt it—this is a prime example of correlation, not causation. I am just as sure they were also part of mosques in their local communities before that. Should everyone who attends a mosque in New York be subject to secret police monitoring? It is indicative of an inductive reasoning that is at best illogical. At worst, it is un-American.
Independent of Muslim stereotyping arguments, secret police monitoring on campus is a violation of the idea of universities as forums for safe dialogue. I am sure that these policemen were within the law in their surveillance. I am sure no criminal laws were broken. But that is not to say that an investigation of this nature is breaking the unwritten code of neutrality that universities should embody. The American university is one of the few places in the world where Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and any other number of religious groups can meet side by side without fear of judgment or reprisal. The unspoken accusation that one of these groups is serving as an incubator for terrorism—without any proof, without any university input—is a profaning of that code.
In an earlier column, I wrote that I feared our generation was in danger of becoming the most indifferent in modern times. I fear that if we do not speak out against seemingly petty violations such as this one, we set a dangerous precedent for academic freedom at the university level. Who are we when we cannot promise minority religious groups a police-free space on campus to worship? Are we simply so used to these petty injustices that we look the other way when they happen? I cannot help but feel that we have achieved such a level of disinterest for these concerns that we will not speak out against them when they do occur. No, the real threat here is not police overreach. It is indifference.
Andrew Godinich is a Columbia College junior majoring in sociology and Portuguese studies. He is the Latin America and Caribbean affairs correspondent for the Columbia Political Review. Too Be Frank runs alternate Thursdays