Terrorism in Europe Triggers Debate Over Surveillance of U.S. Muslims

After Brussels attacks, the NYPD chief takes a softer approach

Video produced by Gunjan Banerji, Natasa Bansagi and Aditi Sangal.

The terrorist bombings at the Brussels airport and in one of the city’s subway stations have put the Muslim population in America back in the spotlight. In the wakes of the attacks, New York tightened security in the transit system, the city’s airports, and railroad hubs. Throughout the week, the presence of more police officers was evident across the city.

At the same time, Presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz brought up how to combat terrorism by keeping a tighter eye on Muslim neighborhoods throughout the country, while New York Police  Commissioner William Bratton characterized Cruz’s musings as offensive.

“We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized,” said Senator Ted Cruz in a Facebook post he wrote in response to the Brussels attack. Commissioner Bratton delivered a fast response at a press conference held in Times Square last week. “I take great offense at his characterization of that whole population, particularly with my intimacy with the population in my organization of Muslim officers, who’re willing to sacrifice their lives in foreign countries and every day step up, willing to sacrifice their lives here,” he said.

Commissioner Bratton has taken up the task to diffuse tensions between City Hall and the city’s Muslim community—and his comments last week reflected that.  The NYPD has previously been heavily criticized for its surveillance policies since 9/11. News that the NYPD monitored mosques and student groups, in particular, further led to distrust of the NYPD among the Muslim population. Mayor Bill de Blasio even campaigned in 2013 with this issue. With fresh measures being taken to beef up security in the city, Bratton is making sure to take a different approach this time.

Meanwhile, Hussein Rashid, a research fellow from the Truman National Security Project, a non-profit that works towards principled solutions for global challenges like terrorism, applauded the commissioner’s statement that underlines that Muslims are a part of New York’s diverse community. “The New York Police Department has really publically understood where they went wrong in a lot of their surveillances, [and] really spoken out against people who want to replicate this at a national level,” said Rashid.

Rashid also pointed out that statements like Senator Cruz’s may end up making America less safe for Muslims—and in the end, less safe for everyone else as well. “The surest way to alienate someone is to go out and alienate them!” He thinks this time the city is handling a sensitive issue well.

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