Law in Contemporary Society

Law and Passion

-- By SarahShaikh - 23 Apr 2024

In my first semester of law school, I took the foundational course Constitutional Law. Much of the lengthy discussions we had went over my head, even the ones I had found somewhat interesting during class. One topic - emergency powers- was similarly ignored. My professor and classmates went into long discourses about the history of emergency powers. We talked about the repercussions of not allowing the president to invoke emergency or perhaps going beyond what the constitution permitted him to do. None of these comments particularly alarmed me. It simply felt like much of what law school is, a scholarly discussion, remarks meant for me to pass an exam with.

Viewing law or even a classroom in such a dispassionate way was extremely foolish of me. As a visibly Muslim woman growing up in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I have had my fair share of seemingly random and isolated encounters with the law. Random security checks at the airport, interrogations with law enforcement officials as a child, extra scrutiny in public and private locations were all normal to me. They were separate and unconnected from the law. At the time, I did not believe it was the law surveilling me. It was individuals.

During the past year at this school, my beliefs began to change as I witnessed the mass surveillance of students first hand after protests broke out amongst the study body. What before was a simple swipe to ensure that students were the ones entering classrooms became a means of tracking where students were at all times. Logging into emails, notes for class stored on Google Drive, checking course details all required verification on my phone, automatically logging my location. I never wondered where all this information was going. All of it felt like normal, basic security precautions. However, when swipe access was used to identify specific student protesters last year, I slowly began to see things differently. I questioned why it had become normal that a school would shut down. I wondered why my younger sister’s high school had a police officer stationed there.

As a Muslim, I felt singularly exposed to this form of surveillance. Every time I neared a building, I felt uncomfortable. I began to draw parallels to news articles and court cases that never truly persisted in my memory, going in one ear and out the other – FBI officials masquerading as converts to surveil and incite threats in mosques, programs of infiltrating student groups primarily made up of Muslims. These were the stories I had heard countless times. These were the stories I ignored. It was my experience at Columbia that allowed me to draw the dots between my life as a Muslim in America and surveillance and how such a deeply intrusive process can only be facilitated through the law.

The Patriot Act of 2001 was signed into law by President Bush a month after the terror attacks on 9/11. Despite arguably having the largest impact on our lives today, this Act was never brought up during our lengthy Con Law discussions on the need for our government to have emergency powers. The emergency and chaos of America facilitated the usage of these powers to implement an intrusive surveillance scheme primarily on Muslims in America. Yet, case after case that is brought forth in our judicial system does not produce holdings that the racist usage of surveillance violates basic rights of privacy. In fact, the case law legitimizes weaponizing this surveillance. The Iqbal case in Civ Pro, again another monumental case in the course, yet one that was only taught in the lens of the standard of pleadings. When I look back at this case, I now see a case that justifies racism. These cases are the reality of laws like the Patriot Act. Yet, they are not the ones discussed in classes like Con Law. Instead, we are told about President Lincoln during our much needed discussion on emergency powers, removing the law from any possibility of emotions and lived experiences.

Beyond the reality of surveillance and privacy, I believe this retelling of cases produces an illuminating story of how law school functions. The cases we learn are purely meant to further a singular story, whether that is pleading in Iqbal or the EPC in Korematsu. Discussions are always set apart from ourselves as if there could never, nor should there be a connection between the law and our lives. This is a mistake. If I had made these connections while we learned about Emergency Powers, my understanding would have been much greater. I would have cared about learning for the sake of learning something, not to write a quick word down for the exam.

Thoughts for the Future

Growing up, law was taught as something rational, court decisions, acts, and sentences were logically and rationally made. A person was incarcerated because they were guilty. We are surveilled because the law allows it and the law is never wrong. My personal experiences and our talks in class have told me the opposite and I hope that I can continue my legal education with a lens of disbelief. I want to view law as something personal that affects us all because it does. I want to enter my next semester of law school as a student once again.

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r3 - 30 May 2024 - 02:53:40 - SarahShaikh
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