Terrorists don’t care whose blood they spill as long as it’s American. White, black, young, or old -- it’s all the same to them. So imagine my surprise when I was speaking at a National Urban League Conference recently and I realized that I was virtually alone in my thinking on domestic surveillance.
At first glance, I can see why many of my fellow African-Americans would be wary of federal domestic surveillance programs such as the one the Bush administration is using against suspected terrorists. In our history, federal officials such as former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover abused similar programs to gather personal information on civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers. However, African-Americans should be among the top supporters of today’s domestic surveillance program. Why? Because without it, a terrorist could unwittingly inflict more devastation on the black community than even the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups have inflicted historically.
Today’s most significant terrorist threats are color blind in the sense they want to hurt and kill as many Americans – black, white or otherwise – as possible. But the reality is that terrorists will most likely target major U.S. cities. And, although blacks make up about 12 percent of our country’s population, Census Bureau figures show that we make up the majority of many large cities.
For example, eight out of 10 people living in Detroit are black. In Atlanta, we make up 62 percent of the city. Chicago’s black population is 37 percent and more than one out of four New Yorkers is black.
Al Qaeda and other groups have made it clear that they are willing to use nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons if they get them. Osama Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, recently said that the American people are "destined for a future colored by blood, the smoke of explosions, and the shadows of terror."
Just imagine if there were no domestic surveillance programs to assist in preventing these threats. Say terrorists make their way into Washington, D.C., with a nuclear bomb. They detonate it, crippling our nation’s capital and our economy. Clearly, any loss of life and destruction of our great city would have horrific consequences for everyone. But blacks, who make up 60 percent of Washington’s 570,000 residents, would carry the greatest burden.
There are also the great African-American historical and cultural losses such destruction would bring. The Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his "I Have a Dream" speech, would be gone. The jazz clubs of U Street, where Duke Ellington got his start, would be gone. Ditto for Frederick Douglass’ house in Anacostia. And also gone or severely diminished would be the combined work of D.C.’s black artists, craftsmen, writers, lawmakers, judges, scientists and historians dating back from the 1800s and even earlier, as well as all the homes and businesses we currently own.
A terrorist wouldn’t even need a nuclear bomb to do serious damage to our community. A "dirty" bomb in certain parts of the city could do the trick. So could a suicide bomber at a popular restaurant or on a particular subway line. A chemical attack at a stadium during a sports event or concert could be effective as well. And if such an attack occurred, everyone, of every color, race, creed and religion, would ask the same question: How could this happen? Why didn’t the government do its job and stop it?
We expect the president to do everything he can to protect the American people. There is no guarantee that any amount of surveillance would be able to stop an individual attack. However, we need to make sure we’ve done everything humanly possible to try.
That’s why instead of just responding to attacks, we have a layered system of prevention which includes limited domestic surveillance. The current program is narrowly tailored to achieve its goal of intercepting terrorist threats. Quite simply, it allows the NSA to monitor conversations of people in the United States who talk to people with ties to terrorist organizations outside the United States. "If you’re talking to al Qaeda, we want to know about it," President Bush has said in defense of the program.
A surveillance program that is properly limited and respects critical civil liberties is vital because terrorists aim to destroy America by any means possible. And if they are successful, in addition to wounding our great nation, terrorists could strike a disproportionate blow to the African-American community.
While it’s important to never forget the abuses of the past, it’s just as important not to wear blindfolds to the realities of the present.
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