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Know-Nothing Security

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Let's all work together to stop terrorism!

The Palm Beach County, Fla. Sheriff's Office has a new video out urging local citizens to call them if something smells bad or seems a little weird, like, oh, a tourist is taking a picture of a bridge but there's no one in the foreground -- no spouse, no grinning kids, just . . . a bridge.

If it seems suspicious, call -- because, I guess, if everyone is vigilant ("Hello, I want to report two young men carrying backpacks") and we work with the authorities, America will be safe as pie in no time.

This program is called Community Partners Against Terrorism, though I'm tempted to call it know-nothing security -- the kind based on zero knowledge of the inner motivations of people. It's security based on stereotypes, unexamined fears, self-righteousness, external projections and an us-vs.-them social organization. Terrorists are bad people with inscrutable motives. All we need to know is that they're out to get us. This is the message of the terrorism "experts," who leverage their authority from their ability to keep us scared and vigilant.

Security is a real need, of course, but know-nothing security flouts that need, often enough both ignoring and aggravating the real dangers we face while, at the same time, inflicting massive inconvenience on people innocently caught in its web, i.e., those on the wrong side of our society's color and ethnicity divide.

For instance, when I read about the CPAT initiative, I thought about an incident 11 years ago that garnered its 15 minutes of national attention and neatly encapsulated all the problems with know-nothing security.

On Sept. 12, 2002 -- a day after the one-year anniversary of 9/11 -- three young med students were on their way to Miami, where they were going to begin an internship at a local hospital. They stopped at a Shoney's restaurant in Calhoun, Ga. A local woman sitting nearby thought she heard them plot a terrorist attack. "We'll bring it down," one of them apparently said. He was referring to his car, but no matter.

The young med students were American citizens, but they were also Muslims. She called the police.

The three were detained, their car and motel room searched; a 20-mile stretch of local highway was shut down for an entire day -- and, well, nothing incriminating was found. They were medical students, after all. They were released, they did some interviews, life went back to normal. Except it didn't.

What happened next was no more than an ironic footnote to the initial news spasm. As CNN reported at the time: "Since Friday, the hospital has asked the students to transfer somewhere else after receiving numerous threats. Hospital president Dr. Jack Michel said Saturday his hospital has received an overwhelming number of e-mails and phone calls that he described as 'threatening, ethnic, racial e-mails directed at Muslim-Americans.'"

Can somebody please tell me where the terrorist threat is in this story?

America's know-nothing security team -- community and police in partnership against terrorism -- succeeded in thwarting the non-threat of three Muslim students driving through Georgia, but completely failed to notice or be concerned about, and perhaps even participated in, actual threats of violence against, good God, a hospital. This part wasn't even a news story in itself, just a "bigots will be bigots" addendum, quickly forgotten, as America went back to scanning the horizon for enemies plotting mayhem against its way of life.

The essence of know-nothing security is absolute indifference to, and ignorance of, the inner life of "them" -- the terrorists, criminals and bad people we fear and watch out for. The entirety of the strategy is to spot and interrupt unlawful activity in progress, hopefully before the bomb goes off. To get there ahead of the blast, it's necessary to engage in widespread racial profiling and harassment: to stalk "them" on a routine basis, no matter the mayhem it inflicts on their lives.

A young, African-American friend who lives in my Chicago neighborhood described something that happened to him the other day: He had just left his mother's restaurant, realized it was colder outside than he had thought and turned around to go back and get his jacket. A police officer had been watching him the whole time. When the young man changed directions, that was "suspicious." He was stopped, frisked, spread-eagled against the police car, etc. Eventually the officer let him go. This was routine.

We invest multi-billions of dollars in know-nothing security and, in the process, foment anger, hatred and, occasionally, counter-violence. If true security were the point, we'd invest far more effort and money in real violence-prevention programs, such as CeaseFire and the growing restorative justice movement, not to mention job-creation.

Instead, we create enemies and wage perpetual war against them. This is an absolute mindset, exemplified by the U.S. military's standard operating procedure for dealing with the hunger strike at Guantanamo, as recently revealed by Al Jazeera. Common Dreams reports that "the military's guidelines were especially troubling because doctors and nurses are reminded that they are 'adjuncts of the security apparatus' and not authorized to 'act independently' in their duties as health professionals."

Security rules, and no one is safe.

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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com, visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.

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