A New Sheriff Loses His Compass: Muslims Are Not the Enemy

Editor’s Note: This post was written for Hatewatch by Jim Cavanaugh, the recently retired Special Agent in Charge of the Nashville, Tenn., office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. It’s a response to a story today about a sheriff in Tennessee planning training by an anti-Muslim bigot.

Today's Nashville Tennessean reports that Rutherford County, Tenn., Sheriff Robert Arnold has scheduled training for law enforcement officers that degrades Islam and spreads hatred. The training reportedly is to be put on by a former FBI agent named John Guandolo from the Washington, D.C., area and held at a Murfreesboro, Tenn., church. The Tennessean says that Guandolo has previously stated in training that Muslims “do not have a First Amendment right to do anything.”

That statement alone is so anti-American on its face that no law enforcement executive should ever engage a trainer who would utter it, period. It is so clearly in violation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that it strains any semblance of reality. Muslim Americans, it says, are people without constitutional protection, people who I suppose are to be regarded as less than other Americans.

Sheriff Arnold is newly elected, a first-term official who is doubtlessly facing a tough job. However, he should reconsider his position here and think deeply about what it means to train law enforcement officers to violate the civil rights of certain Americans. Then he should cancel the training and work with organizations like the Tennessee Sheriffs' Association, the National Sheriffs’ Association and other law-enforcement executive organizations. He should enlist the help and experience of the Tennessee Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission to find genuinely knowledgeable trainers on those subjects that he is interested in.

If Sheriff Arnold wants training about Islam and how his deputies should interact with Muslims in the county, there already is a strong and helpful Muslim community in middle Tennessee that he can work with. I know because I've worked with them before. I spent 33 years in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and before that I was a deputy sheriff. While I was the ATF Special Agent in Charge in Nashville a few years back, the Islamic Center of Nashville was the victim of a firebombing. The Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, the ATF, the FBI and the Tennessee State Fire Marshall's Office all came together to work the case.

In the months that followed and at my direction, these agencies hosted a get-together and training at a local public library. The topic was Islam and getting to know the Muslim community. The speakers we had were the local leaders from Nashville and middle Tennessee's Muslim community. They were exceptional, knowledgeable, gracious and more than willing to help and to work with law-enforcement in every regard. We learned from their insight and we shared our difficulties in finding out who was behind the attack on the Islamic Center and other events.

It wasn't long after that gathering that we were called the scene of an attack on another Islamic organization. This time, the attack was in Columbia, Tenn., where an Islamic center had been completely destroyed in a Molotov-cocktail firebombing. The bigots and haters in that attack had painted swastikas on the wall of the Islamic Center of Columbia. Our team of law enforcement officers, this time anchored and bolstered by the Columbia police and fire departments and their city leaders, launched an aggressive investigation into the case. We were supported in no small measure by the larger Muslim community of Columbia and Middle Tennessee. In less than a week, we were able to arrest the perpetrators — people adorned with swastika tattoos who said they attacked the Islamic Center because of "what goes on in there." They were convicted and sentenced to federal prison.

At the news conference at the U.S. Attorney’s office announcing the arrests, I told the press what really went on "in there” — prayer, worship and religious assemblies, all activities guaranteed and protected by the Constitution of the United States, not to mention the community gatherings, family activities, luncheons, holiday celebrations and all the things that happen in other houses of worship and religious centers across America.

Yet there are those who continue to demonize Islam and Muslims because of what terrorist groups like Al Qaeda do and have done. But Al Qaeda and its ilk no more represent Islam than Eric Rudolph, the infamous Olympics bomber and erstwhile "Christian Identity" adherent, represents Christianity. Lest we forget, Al Qaeda is responsible for the murder of thousands upon thousands of Muslims. Responsible law enforcement officers like Sheriff Arnold should have the common sense to be able to tell the difference, and even if they don't, they certainly should be able to understand the civil rights that are guaranteed by our Constitution.

In the Tennessean article, Sheriff Arnold was quoted as saying he didn't want to pick sides. However, he did pick a side — and he picked the wrong side. He chose as a trainer a man who apparently wants to teach hatred, someone who would legitimize bigotry and the demonization of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims.

If this training takes place, how could any Muslim in Rutherford County trust that a sheriff’s deputy coming to his or her aid does not view them as some sort of terrorist, a person whose rights are of no consequence? How could a Muslim there have the confidence to pick up the phone in an emergency and call people who are trained to see them as a dire threat? Trained to believe they have no Constitutional rights? How can Muslims expect that they will be entitled to due process under the law? Equal protection? Equal treatment?

That there are occasional bigots in law enforcement agencies is a fact that will probably always be so — after all, the men and women who make up these agencies are part of the human race, with all its problems. They have to be ferreted out and kept from influencing their agencies. But things have reached another level when it’s actually formal training that is teaching these officers to be bigots.

Recently, the New York City Police Department came under serious criticism for the way it surveilled mosques and the larger Muslim community in that city, and for its showing of a rabidly anti-Muslim film to some 1,500 officers. Similarly, the FBI has been sharply criticized for training that denigrated Muslims. Since then, FBI Director Robert Mueller has come out strongly against such training, ordering it stopped and the training material purged. The FBI also gave assurances that it would not use such material again. That is the appropriate reaction from a law enforcement executive. But the fact that these kinds of incidents occurred at all still clearly hurts the Muslim community deeply. Hopefully, time will improve that situation through interaction, tolerance, understanding — and an appropriate training curriculum.

It’s remarkable how bigots always seem to demonize the targeted minority of the day with almost identical language. The targeted minority will rape your women, go after your children, steal your money. They look, dress, talk, act and worship differently than real Americans. They are devious. They want to take over your community. They have secret ways, an agenda, even secret rituals and secret laws. They are not to be trusted.

Sound familiar? This is the foundation of all broad-based movements that hate and demonize others. First, there is fear. Then, the fearful decide a certain group is to blame. The next thing is politicians and others in the public square demagoguing the issue for votes and money. A chorus of groups joins in the attacks, with blog posts, speeches, pamphlets, books and more. Ultimately, the bigots gain traction and try to compromise the police. If they can get police to buy in, they’ve gone a long way to genuinely suppressing the targeted minority.

Law enforcement officials most certainly can oppose Al Qaeda and all of its affiliated groups. They can work hard to arrest, prosecute and even to kill their members in certain situations. But they cannot assign Al Qaeda's crimes and horrors to Islam, or use them as an excuse to demonize American Muslims. In Tennessee, Sheriff Arnold is at a fork in the road. He still has a chance to stop the training and to reach out to the law-enforcement organizations mentioned above and to the local Muslim community, and to sponsor appropriate training that can guarantee the safety of all of us. He can work to understand who we all are and how we all can live together. In that spirit, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and the state’s congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle should call on the sheriff not to proceed with this training. Law enforcement executive organizations also should speak out.

The good news is that the great majority of America's law enforcement officers stand where I stand. They prove it every day in how they conduct themselves in their interactions with citizens of all types. Sheriff Arnold and his deputies have done right in investigating aggressively the arson at the local mosque construction site. He has not ignored the case or perverted justice. But there are people out there who are looking for a new Bull Connor, a corrupt cop on the wrong side of history.

Reject the haters, Sheriff Arnold, and reorganize your training. Don’t drink from the poison cup of hate, no matter how sweet they tell you it will taste. Leave the hate to the far reaches of the Internet, and don’t put it in front of a police training classroom. It doesn’t belong there. I want you to succeed, Sheriff Arnold, in the right way and for the right reasons.