Column: Wiring for security

By Elie Dvorin

Last week, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney ruffled some feathers while making a national call for more aggressive measures to fight terrorism in the United States. In addition to his statement that more money needs to be spent on counter-terrorism, he raised the possibilities of wiretapping mosques and conducting surveillance operations on foreign students from terrorist-sponsored countries.

“How about people who are in settings – mosques, for instance – that may be teaching doctrines of hate and terror?” Romney asked. “Are we monitoring that? Are we wiretapping? Are we following what’s going on? Are we seeing who’s coming in and who’s coming out?”

These statements can be dismissed merely as political posturing for the presidential run Romney is going to begin shortly, and for the most part they have been. But such treatment overlooks the significance of his ideas.

As one would expect, civil libertarians and immigrations-rights groups are having a field day with Romney’s comments. Ali Noorani, the executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said, “there’s a need for the U.S. government and the intelligence system to better understand the Muslim community.”

This statement is typical of people who just don’t get it. The role of the government and the intelligence agencies is not to understand Muslims or anybody, for that matter. The role of the government is to protect the American people, and the role of intelligence is to equip the government with the information necessary to do so.

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The unfortunate fact is that mosques have been used to recruit terrorists both domestically and abroad, leaving the government with two options. We can actively seek out radical clerics and pre-empt terrorist recruitment, or we can sit around with our hands covering our eyes pretending that mosques have some kind of immunity from our intelligence resources. Option one will keep us safe. Option two will get us killed. There’s no two ways about it.

In light of Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Madrid Bombings, the London bombings and the general presence of global terrorism we need to reconsider the way we view our civil liberties. Surely, we can’t abandon the notion of there being general protections of privacy, but we do have to abandon the idea that there are “untouchables.” It’s not ideal to have to wiretap mosques or to have to closely monitor foreign students, but the reality is that terrorism is a reality.

Last week, Mahmoud Maawad, an Egyptian student enrolled at the University of Memphis who entered the U.S. illegally, was arrested when he was found with a chart of the Memphis airport, a DVD titled “How an Airline Captain Should Look and Act,” and a fake pilot’s uniform. Granted, it’s a good thing he was caught before he could do any damage, but the way he was discovered is unsatisfactory. He was reported to the authorities by the company from which he purchased several flight instruction DVDs after he failed to pay them $2,500. It’s likely that had he paid the money owed, he would not have been apprehended. That’s simply unacceptable.

Everybody agrees that the only effective way to combat terrorism is to pre-empt terrorist attacks rather than waiting for them to happen. That being the case, we need to give our intelligence agencies every possible tool they need to do their jobs effectively. That means enabling the surveillance of foreign students from dangerous countries and wiretapping of mosques to ensure terrorists aren’t being recruited in places of worship.

When we let political correctness interfere with our ability to keep this country safe, we all lose. Too many people are unwilling to give up any of their civil liberties even when doing so is necessary for the safety of the American people. What these people fail to understand is that we have civil liberties only because our nation is safe enough to afford them to us. If we don’t give a little, we’re going to lose everything.

Elie Dvorin is a senior in LAS. His column appears every Monday. He can be reached at [email protected].