Revelations that the New York Police Department surveilled Muslim student organizations here and at other universities should disturb every Columbia student who associates with a political or religious group—actually, every student, period. There is an important debate to be had here on the expansiveness of civil liberties and the effectiveness of such anti-terrorism programs, but the spying program should disturb us as students because it attacks the very core of our purpose here. The threat of NYPD snoops looming over campus might cause those with extreme ideas to suppress them or take them elsewhere out of public sight, underground, and unchallenged by open discourse.
The NYPD’s specific targeting of the Columbia Muslim Students Association, a dynamic group that often organizes some of the more considered and stimulating events on campus (some of which The Current, of which I am editor in chief, has gladly co-sponsored), exhibits the silliness that profiling student groups without credible threat or evidence can evince. CU MSA might be a hotbed, but one that the next Fortune 500 CEO, president of the United States, or Supreme Court justice emerges from. However, what if the NYPD were to investigate organizations that hold more extreme, “beyond the pale” views like Students for Justice in Palestine or the Columbia International Socialist Organization—would they be justified then? No. Their Orwellian sounding “Weekly MSA Reports” might get a little juicier, but they would still be very much in the wrong.
It would probably take one hand, not two, to count the number of issues that I agree with SJP or the ISO on. To me, many of their views are historically denatured, separated from reality, and sometimes just plain fantastical. The only way to combat such positions, though, is to counter with better ones. Last week I participated in a debate on President Obama’s Middle East policies where we did just that.
There, in Low Library, one of the students representing the ISO heralded terrorist actions like targeting civilians with missiles or suicide bombs as a legitimate form of resistance to the Israeli government. I was appalled that a fellow student would hold such views, but I would have been more appalled if that student had left her ideas unexpressed for fear of being filed away as a potential threat by the NYPD. The chilling effect that the surveillance program might have on campus speech would mean that such views would go unsaid, and thus certain ideologies left unexposed for the truly deleterious modes of thinking that they pose—something more harmful in the long run than a few dilettantes sitting around and speaking reverently of Sayyid Qutb.
The debate was hosted by Turath, an Arab students organization. Turath invited the Columbia Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, the ISO, and The Current to that debate. All of us proved that night, as the ISO raved about elite interests and violent resistance, that the only effective counter uses ideas, not scare tactics, to prove the lie in ridiculous or dangerous philosophies. It is the process of the open market, or, in more contemporary parlance, the incubator, that provides the best avenue with which to thwart extreme ideologies.
By monitoring student organizations like Columbia’s MSA, the city’s police force too blithely ignores the important function that universities provide to American society as free and open incubators for thought. At Columbia we should flirt with strange and sometimes extreme ideas, a process integral to a liberal arts campus.
Students should be able to express extreme views without the fear of ending up in a police file or report. If one student is inhibited from forthrightly offering her views because of this program, then the NYPD will have chilled free speech on New York’s liveliest campus, to the detriment of groups that want to engage the MSA in open discussion.
In the face of such prospects, we students must engage in forceful discourse, sharpen positions, and shout them from atop Low Steps (proverbially, unless you have a sound permit). We should have more debates, write more polemics, especially in the face of police surveillance and documentation. And we should do so knowing that our fellow students, while not necessarily agreeing, will always support our right to argue for what we believe. Let the ideas flow, and the back-and-forth prosper, for we should adhere to the injunction etched atop the College Walk gates that the NYPD seems to have missed: “May All Who Enter Find Peace And Welcome.” “Welcome” not necessarily for the thoughts themselves but rather for your right to express them and mine to rebut them. “Peace” not from disturbing ideas but from being disturbed while expressing them.
The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in history. He is editor in chief of The Current. This piece only contains his own personal views and does not reflect those of The Current.