Terrorist threat necessitates surveillance

by Chris Schafer

Today’s American is a citizen under surveillance. Like never before in our history, the nation’s people watch over each other both compassionately and protectively while the government watches over us all. It can be unnerving to know a second set of eyes might be focused on our actions. Of course this surveillance is not even a fraction of that which was predicted by George Orwell in “1984,” but the government’s intrusive eye is still more imposing than many Americans would prefer.

The average citizen of this nation wakes up to a morning paper full of exaggerated editorials and tacky cartoons ridiculing the perceived oppressive level of surveillance in this country. He or she might wonder if it is all worth it, if there is a real need for the monitoring of luggage, e-mails and phone calls. Citizens wonder if maybe, just maybe, the government is exercising its power of authority over the common man simply because it can. Perhaps our nation’s government is imposing on our civil liberties and devouring them in order to monitor us more closely, all for no reason.

And then the same citizens open the paper one morning and read about the capture of the Lackawanna six and suddenly all of the investigation and surveillance is justified once again.

Three weeks ago, as the rest of the country mourned the loss of 2,918 innocent civilians on Sept. 11, 2001, federal agents made a series of arrests in the tiny Buffalo suburb of Lackawanna, N.Y. During the week five men – Shafal Mosed, Faysal Galab, Sahim Alwan, Yasein Taher and Yahya Goba – were arrested while a sixth, Muktar al-Bakri, was captured in Bahrain, a small country in the Persian Gulf. The men are all believed to be members of a terrorist cell trained by al-Qaida. Each faces a charge of conspiring with terrorists and a maximum prison sentence of 15 years. Two other suspected members of the terrorist cell, Jaber Elbaneh and ringleader Kamal Derwish, are believed to be in Yemen at the moment. In light of the current arrests, their return is doubtful.

Six more terrorists were caught and arrested, yet it is hardly surprising to today’s American that such individuals still exist. We all knew that small factions would still exist even after the ruling Taliban were dethroned and the probable death of Osama bin Laden occurred. But the discovery of a group, a true terrorist cell – five to seven individuals living within a few blocks of one other for several years as the Lackawanna group did – is unexpected and unnerving. Al-Qaida-trained terrorists are trained to exist in such a manner – to blend in with their surroundings and draw as little attention to themselves as possible. Each of the men arrested in Lackawanna, though of Yemeni decent, was still an American citizen. Government officials began tracking the activities of the group once they returned from Afghanistan on what prosecutors said was a terrorist training mission. The defendants said they traveled abroad for religious reasons.

Government officials moved in and made their arrests after noticing an increase in the volume of e-mails and phone calls among cell members, as the Sept. 11 anniversary approached. The defendants plead that they are innocent victims, poor working men, which does nothing to account for the FBI’s discoveries in their homes. Shafal Mosed claimed to have no more than $1,000 to his name. Yet FBI agents found $6,400 cash in a coat pocket in his house. Government officials also found a cassette tape in al-Bakri’s home, which “asks Allah to give Jews and their (American) enablers a black day,” and an e-mail to Derwish, titled “Big Meal,” regarding terrorist attacks using explosives. The e-mail, written in Arabic, contains similar word usage to that of old bin Laden tapes. It goes on to say: “The next meal will be very huge. No one will be able to withstand it except those with faith.”

Despite this unnerving news, we aren’t as shocked as we might have been a year ago. Americans have seen enough of the propaganda and the hate, as it exists in many parts of the world. But now we have to accept the idea that it exists in our part of the world as well. The evil of the world doesn’t dwell solely in the cavernous regions of Afghanistan; we must accept that it lives among us as well, even in small suburban communities like Lackawanna. Simple groups of five to seven, living day-to-day lives and working regular jobs, wait for their call to come.

These groups’ real or potential actions necessitate the call for added surveillance. Our enemies understand the Constitution and they know how to abuse it. They use its liberties to hide beneath our noses and wait until the day they are summoned. They would happily destroy the freedoms that exist here, the freedoms that keep them hidden. That’s what makes the continued war on terrorism so difficult: The enemy has no central location, it exists everywhere in the world that it chooses. Or perhaps, everywhere in the world that it is allowed. In order to really clamp down on terrorism, we must cut off the areas where it once lived free.

Surveillance has been a part of this nation for a long time, and we have chosen to live with it, because we see the good that it is doing. Video cameras exist within all department stores to crack down on shoplifting, which stops us from paying the brunt of the loss at the register. Would we have known about the Rodney King beating or Madelyne Gorman Toogood’s shocking abuse of her child if it wasn’t for added surveillance? Would there have been any justice for these crimes?

No, we don’t need our government monitoring the everyday actions of our citizens in Orwellian fashion; this is a free country. But our authorities should have the freedom to hunt down those who pose a threat to the nation, without having to dance around rules that could impede the general population’s well-being. Additional surveillance doesn’t spawn from itself; it is created through a need that is ultimately necessitated by human actions. The terrorist threat that lurks in this country has created that need now.

Added surveillance within the post-Sept. 11 United States is simply a fact of life. Groups like the Lackawanna six exist all around the country and the world. The new evil has no particular face; it spreads itself thinly across the globe like a diluted oil spill. In order to find it and arrest the terrorists before they can strike, officials have to be able to ask questions and monitor suspicious activity. For government authorities, it takes freedom to protect freedom.

Chris Schafer’s biweekly column appears Wednesdays. He welcomes [email protected]. Send comments to [email protected]