Stephen M. Walt

America’s Paranoid ‘Stop and Frisk’ on a Global Scale

Here in the United States, federal judge Shira Scheindlin has ruled that New York City’s "stop and frisk" policy is in fact a form of racial profiling that violates basic constitutional rights. According to the New York Times editorial: "Under the Fourth Amendment, police officers can legally stop and detain a person only when they ...

Photo: PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images

Here in the United States, federal judge Shira Scheindlin has ruled that New York City’s "stop and frisk" policy is in fact a form of racial profiling that violates basic constitutional rights. According to the New York Times editorial:

"Under the Fourth Amendment, police officers can legally stop and detain a person only when they have a reasonable suspicion that the person is committing, has committed or is about to commit a crime. Over the years, however, the Police Department has adopted a strategy that encourages cops to stop and question mainly minority citizens first and to come up with reasons for having done so later."

I read this story and immediately thought about the similarities to certain aspects of U.S. foreign and national security policies. "Stop and frisk" is essentially an act of preemption or prevention: The suspect hasn’t committed a crime, but the police go after the person on the basis of the thinnest of suspicions, like a bulging pocket or the loosely defined "furtive gestures."

Now think about the United States’ use of drones or special operations forces to conduct "targeted assassinations" of suspected terrorists. In many cases, U.S. officials have some reason to think somebody might be planning a terrorist operation, but the person isn’t actually doing it when officials decide to take the individual out. Notice that this policy goes way beyond mere "stop and frisk": If the United States can’t apprehend someone it thinks might be dangerous, these days it just blows the person away and calls the individual a "suspected terrorist" afterward.

Unfortunately, the information on which these suspicions are based is far from 100 percent reliable. Moreover, no matter how often we are told that drone strikes are "surgical" and precise, sometimes the United States is in fact killing innocent people along with those who might actually be dangerous. But most Americans don’t care because this is all happening a long way away and mostly out of sight. The negative consequences — increased terrorist recruitment and rising anti-Americanism abroad — only show up later.

Or think about the story that John Grisham published in the Times Aug. 11, chronicling the sorry plight of Nabil Hadjarab, an Algerian who has been imprisoned for 11 years (11!) in Guantánamo. Since being captured after the invasion of Afghanistan, Hadjarab has been tortured, force-fed, and kept mostly in solitary confinement. But what he hasn’t been is tried and convicted of a crime.

Think about it: 11 years in brutal solitary confinement, and we still don’t know whether this man did anything wrong. A saga like this sounds like Stalinist Russia or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; instead, it is the official policy of the Land of the Free. Indeed, Grisham reports that Hadjarab has twice been recommended for release yet remains in custody today. The sad Gitmo saga is "stop, frisk, and toss in jail" on a global scale: The United States scooped up all sorts of people, sometimes for good reason but in other cases simply because somebody sold them out for a bounty. And then the country let them languish in legal limbo for years.

What’s going on is a predictable consequence of the post-9/11 hysteria that swept the United States, aided and abetted by the George W. Bush’s administration and largely seconded by President Barack Obama. U.S. officials built al Qaeda into a threat of monstrous proportions — which it never was — and they continue to sound that tocsin today. This approach is no different from those of earlier presidents who declared a "war on drugs" in order to justify policies that have filled America’s prisons with minor offenders but have done nothing to reduce drug use. The basic principle is the same: If you get enough people sufficiently scared, they will let government officials do all sorts of dubious things in order to feel safer.

I know: These situations aren’t identical. The U.S. Constitution supposedly guarantees certain rights for U.S. citizens, but those constitutional protections don’t extend to foreigners. One could also argue that international politics is a dangerous business and that preserving security and liberty in the United States requires the country to do nasty things overseas. Of course, this last argument is always invoked whenever someone wants to justify an otherwise heinous action, whether firebombing civilians in World War II or overthrowing nationalist leaders in the developing world during the Cold War.

An exaggerated sense of threat is the common thread uniting these various policies. Unfortunately, hardly anyone in official circles has an interest in downplaying threats, and plenty have an interest in inflating them. A dangerous world is one where politicians and officials get a free pass from most of the citizenry, and a pervasive sense of danger allows them to keep more secrets, intimidate the media, marginalize or prosecute dissidents, and operate with far greater latitude in general. Small wonder that Democrats and Republicans seem equally inclined to portray minor global problems in the most lurid terms.

It really is quite funny: The United States is still the world’s strongest economy, and it has the world’s most advanced and capable military forces, the world’s most reliable nuclear deterrent, and no great powers nearby. Yet it finds itself chasing spooks and ghosts all over the world because it has somehow convinced itself that it is in fact very, very vulnerable. I’m not saying that no dangers exist, but hardly any pose a serious threat to the American way of life. Until the U.S. political system is able to calibrate these dangers in a more sensible way, the country is likely to continue chasing fantasies. And the tragic part is that many things the country is now doing may in fact be making these problems worse.

U.S. leaders are fond of saying that America’s great power and moral values give it a "special responsibility" for global leadership. In fact, America’s great power seems mostly to give U.S. leaders a remarkable sense of indifference to the consequences of their actions. (Have you heard any members of the Bush administration apologize for the carnage the United States helped unleash in Iraq?). And in contrast to Judge Scheindlin’s recent ruling about the New York Police Department, the real difference is that there is no global judge who can rule these actions illegal and force the U.S. government to conform to broader global norms.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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