Every morning, my neighbor and her six-year-old daughter share a bus stop with a terrorist — or a member of a terrorist organization, at least. That’s distressing enough, because my son rides the same school bus, but I recently discovered that the terrorist at my son’s bus stop is me; his Dad, who puts him on the bus each morning. And another terrorist, his Papa, picks him up from school every day.
We became terrorists one morning in February 2006, when we got dressed up, put a coat and tie on our then four-year-old son, and drove to the state capitol.
For 14 months under our previous Republican governor, in 2005 and 2006, the Maryland State Police spied on activists. Groups ranging from peace activists to bike lane advocates ended up in a state database as terrorist organizations because they were “fringe people,” in the words of the police superintendent who authorized the surveillance program, and a “threat” to security.
The program came to light last summer, due to a public records request by the ACLU under. In January, the Washington Post reported that Equality Maryland — the state’s largest gay civil rights group — was one of the groups deemed a “security threat” by state officials, and that officials kept records of the group’s plans for a lobby day at the state capitol.
It is troubling that merely by supporting an organization working for equal protection under the law for my family and families like mine, I may be labeled as a terrorist or as a supporter of a terrorist organization. It seems all one had to do to be deemed a “terrorist” was to openly and publicly oppose the policies of the government, state or federal, even — in the case of my family — policy that discriminated against you and yours.
I’m not among the 53 people whose names and personal information were entered into federal and state databases. But after reading about the undercover officer infiltrating a group planning anti-death penalty protests, I wondered if an undercover officer was at the meetings I attended concerning the Equality Maryland lobby day, or among the group that met with our state Senator — who’s also a gay dad. I wondered what might have happened if the people running this program had gotten a sign-up sheet or membership list with my name on it.
As an American citizen, I should never have to wonder. But I do. And I am not alone. The FBI and police in several cities, including Denver and New York City, have responded similarly to the threat of terrorism. And those are just the cases we know of now. You may be a labeled a terrorist too, if you’ve protested against a war, for human rights, or peacefully petitioned the government for your own equality.
The police superintendent who authorized the surveillance program defended it, saying that the First Amendment isn’t a guarantee to “those who wish to disrupt the government.” I wonder how my family disrupted the government? Was it when we attended scheduled meetings with our legislators? Was it the peaceful rally outside the capitol? (Was it our six-year-old, running into the middle of the meeting, to show me the picture he and the Senator’s daughter had colored?)
Another state official said the problem was that the information was not purged after no actual terrorist activity or connections were revealed.
The real problem is that United States citizens were spied upon, and thus treated as suspect, simply for exercising the very rights the so-called war on terror was allegedly intended to defend.
It would have made J. Edgar Hoover proud, and brought a smile to Joe McCarthy’s face. But, at the end of an administration that encouraged Americans to spy on one another, it should make any American blush with shame that it happen, again.
Our legislators introduced a bill to prohibit police surveillance of activists who are not suspected of criminal activity. That we even need such a law is a reminder that our vigilance as citizens is vital to prevent such violations. Otherwise, someday the terrorist at your child’s bus stop may be you.