Dear Mr. President,
Today's New York Times Op-ed about the National Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative discusses the difficult balance between personal liberty and national security sought by your administration. It made me think of my own work in loss prevention. Generally speaking, all of the activities that might indicate a person is planning a terrorist attack are legal; prevention requires law enforcement or intelligence officers to respond to legal activities that arouse suspicion. This, of course, can lead to abuse and civil rights violations against innocent people who have no intention of committing a crime at all. On a much smaller scale, my line of work requires a similar impossible balance. No one can be caught for theft without first doing several other perfectly legal things. I have to witness a person select the item and watch them continuously until they leave my store without it. Until they leave the store they have usually done nothing wrong. Suspicious behavior is my only way to begin to predict who will steal. But looking around warily, hiding from staff, or wearing clothing that facilitates concealment of merchandise aren't, in themselves, illegal acts. My job therefore requires that I attempt to prevent theft by monitoring the perfectly legal activity of shoppers who often turn out to be no threat whatsoever.
Does my suspicion infringe upon their civil liberties? I'm sure there are people who don't enjoy being watched as they shop, but most never notice I'm watching them. Have I done them harm by thinking it might be possible that they could steal? I suppose it's my parents' influence that inclines me to the belief that an innocent person has nothing to fear from investigation, but the liberal I've grown up to be recognizes that preemptive suspicion, even without tangible legal consequences, can violate a person's civil rights. I experienced the other side of this when flying out of Tel Aviv and being interrogated and strip-searched because of my tattoo in Arabic. Nothing about my tattoo is harmful or potentially harmful to others, nor does it logically indicate extremist tendencies on my part. (Tattoos are, to my understanding, haram, or at least frowned upon making it unlikely that a tattoo like mine would indicate extreme religious convictions.) That I was interrogated in the airport by Israeli officials was entirely unsurprising, but it wasn't at all based on logic or effective law enforcement. This suspicion did violate my civil liberties because it resulted in an invasive search, unlike my own suspicion of shoplifters which never results in a search or detention unless the selection and removal of the item has been witnessed directly.
Obviously terrorism can't be compared so easily to shoplifting; I wait until a crime has been committed before taking any action at all, and such precaution can lead to the loss of innocent lives in the case of terrorism. That being said, I still believe that civil liberties are more important to our well-being than the illusion of safety. I appreciate the NSARI's intention; data collection and analysis does need to be reworked and our counter terror efforts ought to be based on behavior/activity rather than race, religion or nature of origin. I appreciate the difficult nature of this attempt by your administration. What must be paramount is the absolute assurance that any investigation resulting from suspicious but legal activity be conducted respectfully and without the intention to humiliate or intimidate suspects. Maybe we can never be safe, but we will certainly not become safer by denying the basic humanity of those we fear.