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Ted Cruz's outrageous idea to "patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods," explained

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It only took Ted Cruz's campaign a few hours to turn Tuesday's terrorist attacks in Brussels into a partisan issue in the US presidential election. The outraged response to Cruz's call to "patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods" — even President Obama, traveling in Argentina, took the opportunity to go after Cruz — has been so enthusiastic that it almost seems like a sigh of relief: People who feel that the Republican Party is just as Islamophobic as Donald Trump finally have a good piece of evidence to point to.

But the catharsis of condemnation has overwhelmed the specifics of what Cruz actually said. And what he said wasn't as uniquely outrageous as you might think.

Cruz's comments were neither a spontaneous response to the Brussels attacks nor a thoroughly fleshed-out policy proposal. Cruz is drawing on specific right-wing tropes about the threatening "isolation" of Muslims in Europe (and perhaps the US). But he's also not wrong when he points out that police officers in America already have engaged in specific surveillance and targeting of "Muslim neighborhoods."

In the past, this hasn't been a specifically Republican policy. But by lassoing it into the election cycle, Cruz may have turned it into one.

What Ted Cruz actually said

All the discussion of Ted Cruz's comments relies on interpretations of a Facebook post — really, one line in a Facebook post — that Cruz posted Tuesday morning, and a statement his campaign released later that day. There's no white paper or anything. So it's useful to know what Cruz actually said.

On Tuesday morning, he posted a statement to his official Facebook page that read, in part:

For years, the west has tried to deny this enemy exists out of a combination of political correctness and fear. We can no longer afford either.

Our European allies are now seeing what comes of a toxic mix of migrants who have been infiltrated by terrorists and isolated, radical Muslim neighborhoods.

We will do what we can to help them fight this scourge, and redouble our efforts to make sure it does not happen here.

We need to immediately halt the flow of refugees from countries with a significant al Qaida or ISIS presence.

We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.

We need to secure the southern border to prevent terrorist infiltration.

And we need to execute a coherent campaign to utterly destroy ISIS.

The days of the United States voluntarily surrendering to the enemy to show how progressive and enlightened we can be are at an end. Our country is at stake.

Most of these are proposals Cruz has made in the past. But the line about wanting to "patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods" was new. And it didn't sit well with a lot of people.

Later in the day, the Cruz campaign released a statement clarifying and extending Cruz's remarks — in a way that made his proposal sound less like a military occupation, but still made it appear that a Cruz administration would deliberately target Muslims for policing and surveillance:

We know what is happening with these isolated Muslim neighborhoods in Europe. If we want to prevent it from happening here, it is going to require an empowered, visible law enforcement presence that will both identify problem spots and partner with non-radical Americans who want to protect their homes.

Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies all have divisions that target threats like drugs, gangs, human trafficking, and organized crime. Radical Islamic terrorism is a significant and growing threat in this country, but this administration refuses to recognize it because they are afraid of being labeled "politically incorrect." In New York City, Mayor de Blasio succumbed to unfounded criticisms and eliminated the efforts of law enforcement to work with Muslim communities to stop radical Islamic terrorism.

Ted Cruz will never allow political correctness to drive decisions about our security. Innocent, peaceful Americans, no matter their faith, deserve to live in safe neighborhoods; that is what law enforcement exists to do, and that includes preventing radical Islamic terror cells from taking root in them. The police should have every tool available to follow leads and take action against those who would do us harm. That is what Cruz is calling for and it is the basic responsibility of our elected leaders — to prioritize the safety of our citizens.

Cruz is proposing to solve the problem of "no-go zones" — which don't really exist

To understand what Cruz is proposing here, you need to understand what, in particular, he and his supporters are afraid of.

In both statements from Cruz and his campaign, he raises the specter of Muslim neighborhoods in Europe that are "isolated" from the outside world. This is an existing trope among conservatives and conservative media: that Europe is pockmarked with Muslim communities that are so insular and hostile that they're "no-go zones" for Europeans.

no go zones

Louisiana Gov. (and onetime Republican presidential candidate) Bobby Jindal has been one of the leading purveyors of this myth, and of its companionate idea that "no-go zones" will threaten and destabilize America next, as my colleague Zack Beauchamp pointed out last January:

Citing the (fictional) specter of Muslim-dominated "no-go zones" in Europe, Jindal has warned of an Islamic "invasion" and "colonization" of the United States designed to impose Sharia law on unsuspecting Americans. "If they want to come here and they want to set up their own culture and values, that's not immigration. That's really invasion, if you're honest about it," Jindal said in a radio appearance.

The "no-go zones" are a myth in Europe. (As the Brussels attack has demonstrated, European law enforcement has plenty of blind spots — but those are due to organizational failings, not an inability to set foot in heavily Muslim neighborhoods.) And the specter of them coming to America, where Muslims are barely clustered in enough proximity for "Muslim neighborhoods" to even exist, is even less credible.

But the trope of "no-go zones" has given conservatives and Republicans a way to talk about fear of an "invasion" by Muslim immigrants without seeming xenophobic. The idea of the "no-go zone" is that if Muslims don't integrate into Western countries, it isn't the fault of Westerners for not accepting them — it's because the Muslims themselves don't really want to integrate. (The subtext: They don't want to become modern.)

But of course, the fear of an "invasion" on the part of immigrants (especially Middle Eastern or Asian immigrants) is a longstanding xenophobic trope in its own right. The "no-go zone" is simply an extension of it — an idea that somehow, a neighborhood could become something not even American anymore just because of who's in it, and therefore that it needs to be militaristically defended.

"Patrol and secure" sounds extreme. But it goes further than what Cruz is actually proposing.

Media figures and liberal pundits attacked Cruz for his "patrol and secure" remarks — with many of them saying he was as bad as, or worse than, Donald Trump, who's called for a ban on Muslim immigration into the US.

Much of the criticism, like these tweets, focused on the word "patrol," which sounds pretty militaristic. "Does that mean checkpoints on every corner? Does that mean papers on every street?" Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations asked my colleague Jeff Stein. "To me, this sounds like an armed occupation of Muslim neighborhoods."

The statement issued by Cruz's campaign, though — and Cruz's comments during a press conference later Tuesday night — imply something slightly, and crucially, different. In those, Cruz referred to things police officers had already done in the US — specifically, in New York — and simply said that those things should be able to happen again.

In the opinion of conservative columnist Ross Douthat, this is a classic Cruz move: "Say something wild-sounding for political benefit, then walk back when pressed." Douthat compares it to Cruz's promise to bring back "carpet bombing," which, when asked for specifics, turned into a promise to bomb very particular targets (literally the opposite of carpet bombing).

The NYPD really did target and surveil Muslims for years. And they're not the only ones.

The "successful program" Cruz is referring to is an initiative that the New York Police Department ran for several years under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, called the Demographics Unit. (The name was later changed to the "Zone Assessment Unit.")

Its goal was, essentially, to infiltrate and surveil Muslim neighborhoods for the purpose of fighting terrorism.

The NYPD denied the existence of the unit for years, until the Associated Press (led by reporters Adam Goldman, now at the Washington Post, and Matt Apuzzo, now at the New York Times) got hold of several documents outlining its operations. Here's what Goldman and Apuzzo wrote in 2011 about how the department worked:

Undercover police officers, known as rakers, visited Islamic bookstores and cafes, businesses and clubs. Police looked for businesses that attracted certain minorities, such as taxi companies hiring Pakistanis. They were told to monitor current events, keep an eye on community bulletin boards inside houses of worship and look for "hot spots" of trouble.

[...]

Using census information and government databases, the NYPD mapped ethnic neighborhoods in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Rakers then visited local businesses, chatting up store owners to determine their ethnicity and gauge their sentiment, the documents show. They played cricket and eavesdropped in the city's ethnic cafes and clubs.

[...]

The rakers were looking for indicators of terrorism and criminal activity, the documents show, but they also kept their eyes peeled for other common neighborhood sites such as religious schools and community centers.

The focus was on a list of 28 countries that, along with "American Black Muslim," were considered "ancestries of interest." Nearly all were Muslim countries.

Subsequent articles revealed that the NYPD had monitored 250 mosques in the area. It had recorded the names and contact information of members of seven Muslim student groups at area colleges. And it had assigned undercover officers and informants to local Muslim leaders who were working with the NYPD to combat radicalization.

Muslim Americans protesting the NYPD's targeting and surveillance of Muslim communities.
Muslim Americans protesting the NYPD's targeting and surveillance of Muslim communities.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty

The discovery of the unit led to a pair of lawsuits against the NYPD: one claiming that it had gone out of its jurisdiction by monitoring Muslims in New Jersey, and one claiming that it had violated the terms of a decades-old federal decree restricting the NYPD from investigating political speech. The second group of lawsuits was settled earlier this year — terms included the appointment of a civilian oversight administrator.

The unit was disbanded entirely after the inauguration of Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014 — but, despite Cruz's implication, it wasn't because the Obama administration put pressure on New York to shut it down. To the contrary, while then–Attorney General Eric Holder had expressed reservations about the Demographics Unit, the White House Homeland Security Advisor (John Brennan, who's now head of the CIA) called it and the NYPD's efforts "heroic."

And while nothing like the Demographics Unit has been tried in other cities — at least as far as the public knows — the federal government, under both Bush and Obama, has used confidential informants to monitor mosques and try to chat up potential radicals (and, in some cases, goad them into planning terrorist plots).

In fall 2014, mosques in five states reported unannounced visits from informants in a matter of weeks — prompting the Council on American-Islamic Relations to issue a nationwide alert.

What Cruz is proposing might be unconstitutional and ineffective — but so are existing efforts to "partner with" Muslims by targeting them

Look how not-hard this is! (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty)

Cruz's proposal — especially in its original "patrol and secure" form — is, as CAIR's Hooper told Vox, "light-years beyond" the abuses of the Demographic Unit. But the Demographic Unit shows that law enforcement targeting of "Muslim neighborhoods" isn't nearly as unimaginable as you might think — and it's not the sole province of Republicans.

It's also a reminder that just because something sounds unconstitutional doesn't mean it can't be given a nondiscriminatory legal fig leaf. As constitutional law professor Richard Primus of the University of Michigan told the Washington Post's Greg Sargent, law enforcement would be able to justify increasing "law enforcement across all neighborhoods where threats might be growing, including Muslim neighborhoods." (Or it could try to persuade a judge that there was a compelling national security reason to target Muslims directly, though that might be a harder sell.)

But such a compelling national security interest could never exist — because the least effective way to engage with Muslim communities is to assume all American Muslims are jihadists or potential jihadists. That's the fundamental absurdity of Cruz's proposal to "work with Muslim communities" by patrolling them — an absurdity that, taken to its logical conclusion, becomes the NYPD monitoring the very Muslim leaders it's partnering with in anti-terrorism efforts.

This sort of law enforcement tactic doesn't work. That hasn't stopped two consecutive presidential administrations from trying to use it. And it won't stop Ted Cruz from continuing to endorse it — because even if it wouldn't work as a policy, it's certainly an effective way to remind his supporters that they're worried about mythical "no-go zones."


CORRECTION:This article originally referred to John Brennan as the head of the National Counterterrorism Center. While that is a position he held under President Bush, at the time of his comments about the NYPD he was U.S. Homeland Security Advisor.