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Visiting the Post-9/11 America

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Leif Erlingsson
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PostPosted: Thu, 2005 Oct 20 23:30:01    Post subject: Visiting the Post-9/11 America Reply with quote

Visiting the Post-9/11 America

Dr. Hassan N. Gardezi

The fourth anniversary of 9/11 has come and gone as another occasion to reflect on the many ways in which this tragic episode changed the course of world affairs. There was much reminiscence of the horror of the day and discussion of the global political agenda pursued by George W. Bush in reaction to the injury inflicted on the United States of America, the mightiest power on Earth. What I was thinking of on this September 11, 2005 was the way the United States of America itself changed as a civil society and as a host country to foreign visitors in the wake of 9/11 attacks.

I must admit that as far as I remember I never found the United States of America particularly hospitable to foreign visitors. On my first visit to that country in 1958, I found myself more of an object of curiosity as an exchange student from a poor Third World country than anything else. After moving to Canada from Pakistan I visited America many times from 1970s on just to see friends or attend professional meetings as an academic. But seldom did I get through the ports of entry into the neighboring United States without feeling like a trespasser who at the end should be grateful for being allowed to enter rather than be detained and prosecuted for some inexplicable misdemeanor. However, on most of those occasions the initial feelings of being unwelcome did not last very long, once in the company of some good friends on the other side of the border or after a drive through some of this planet's most scenic landscape where once the bison roamed, and the "Red Indian" camped to harvest the nature's bounty.

At other times, however, trying to cross the 49th parallel which separates Canada from the United States turned out to be a really threatening experience, as at one time when I was on my way to Manila to attend a meeting of Asian scholars. The year was 1990 when the Berlin Wall had fallen and the American global TV networks were triumphantly flashing pictures of people chipping away at the crumbling barrier with their hammers. My travel agent had booked me to Philippines via San Francisco where I was supposed to have a short wait in the transit area of the airport before catching the connecting flight to Manila.

On arrival at Canada's Toronto airport, I found a large crowd waiting to board the plane. After receiving our boarding cards we had to carry our baggage in hand to the US immigration/customs post which is located inside the international departures terminal of the Toronto airport. Moving slowly in a long line of passengers, I finally entered the US inspection enclosure and handed over my travel documents to one of the American officials. He looked at my Canadian passport and duly noticed my place of birth.

"Born in My-on-valee (Mianwali), Packistan?" He muttered aloud.

"Yes," I said

"open your suitcase."

When the suitcase was opened, he was joined by another of his colleagues to ransack its contents. A third one took position at the entrance from where I had walked in. This one, a familiar figure at the US immigration/customs posts was in a dark blue uniform, chewing furiously on the piece of gum in his mouth. From each side of his steatopygic buttocks dangled two guns a billy club and other assorted contraptions.

Those examining the contents of my suitcase, item by item, also began to throw a volley of questions at me. How long have you lived in Canada? Why are you going to San Francisco? (which I was not). Why are you going to Manila? (which I was). How much American currency do you have? Do you have any drugs with you? etc. etc. Having emptied the suitcase my interrogators flipped it upside down and tapped and knocked it on all sides.

Then having felt my pockets and socks, they turned to my briefcase and started pulling out its contents, taking their sweet time. Stationary, papers, reading materials everything came out. From this pile they fished out a letter for closer inspection, as if this was the piece of incriminating evidence they were looking for.

What have they found? I wondered.

"Islamic terrorism" in those days had not yet been identified as a menace to America. Osama bin Laden was an American ally who had helped oust the Soviet Red Army from Afghanistan and there was no perception that this trusted holy warrior would one day let loose his "evil doers" on "the crusaders and Zionists." America's collective paranoia was still focused on the leftist subversives, remnants of the anti-Vietnam War rebellion, drug dealers and "racially unfit" people trying to illegally settle in the land of milk and honey.

In any case, the letter in their hands became the subject of another round of grilling. Who was the writer of the letter? Where did I meet him? Why was I corresponding with him? Why was I carrying the letter with me? etc. etc.

The letterhead and the text of the letter in simple English should have answered their questions. A professor of philosophy from the University of Mane, USA, writing to ask if I would contribute a chapter to his book. But these men obviously thought that they were looking at some coded script about some criminal or subversive deal.

Finally, after the departure of the flight was announced their interest in me and my baggage began to dwindle. They gave up their quest and turned their backs on me, as if they had nothing to do with me at all. The stream of announcements from the departure lounge's PA system ceased and suddenly it was all quiet around me. The gunman guarding the entrance had disappeared. At a short distance from me I saw another brown-skinned man re-packing his suitcase. After collecting our belongings, the two of us walked back to the Canadian territory of the Canadian airport. With an expression of disgust and frustration on his face, my fellow traveler said something about not being able to make it to an important staff meeting of his company in Tokyo.

"That is how the cookie crumbles," I recited an American saying to him which I had heard a long time ago at Washington State University when I was studying sociology there. Needless to say that my companion was not amused and hurried on to the airline counter from where we had received our boarding cards.

To put this little episode in context, it happened at a time when the treatment of "aliens," as non-citizens are officially called in America, was still informed by some narrative of constitutionality and civil rights. Then came the deadly strikes of 9/11 in 2001 that, we are told, changed America and the world for ever. Within days of the suicidal attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington George W. Bush declared "war on terrorism," and assuming the powers of a "war-time president," launched a wide-ranging assault on the democratic rights of his fellow citizens as well as non-citizens alike.

Neighboring Canadians got the feel of where America was headed immediately after the September 11 strikes. Washington closed the border between the two countries, as soon as it figured out what had happened on that day, while at the same time diverting all overseas flights approaching America to Canadian airports, presumably with the consent of Canadian authorities. Hundreds of passengers of these flights ended up as house guests of Canadian families. On the afternoon of September 11 a Korean Airlines passenger jet bound for Alaska was chased by US fighter planes with orders to shoot it down and was forced to land at White Horse, a remote airport in the Canadian North. Luckily the alarm that the Korean jet was being hijacked turned out to be false, just in time to save the lives of its 300 occupants.

Inside the United States the Department of Justice moved quickly after September 11 to pick up over 1000 non-citizen Muslim males of Middle Eastern and South Asian background in its first wave of roundup for interrogation and detention under the cloak of secrecy. No names were released and no charges laid for involvement in any criminal or terrorist activity. Those detained were held under subhuman conditions without due process of law.

Thirteen days after the 9/11 strikes the Bush Administration drew up an act under the pretentious title of "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism" ( USA-PATRIOT) Act. It was rushed through the Congress and was signed into law on October 26, 2001. The American public, held in fear of terrorists running loose by their government and an acquiescent mass media, watched silently and approvingly as the PATRIOT Act took away their legal protections embodied in the First, Fourth, Fifth and Eighth Amendments to the Constitution. Among other things, the Act provided that both citizens and non-citizens of America can be jailed indefinitely without being charged with any specific legal offence and without fair trial; they can be subjected to searches and surveillance without judicial approval and oversight; and can have their personal records examined by the FBI and other law enforcement authorities, including their records of library borrowing and book purchases at stores. Non-citizens can not only be denied entry to the united States and deported but can also be detained and incarcerated on mere suspicion. By a separate executive order issued by President Bush on November 13, 2001, non-citizens suspected of terrorist acts could also be tried by military tribunals.

The PATRIOT Act provided legal support for intensified interrogation and tracking of the arrival and departure of non-immigrant visitors to America by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) which had already begun this task. As if this was not enough, the Attorney General's office issued yet another executive order entitled U. S. National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS). Under this order began the compulsory registration of non-immigrant visitors to America from a number of targeted countries on September 11, 2002. From November 5, 2002, the dragnet of NSEERS was also extended to cover those already in America. All males over 16 years of age who were citizens or nationals of more than 20 named Muslim countries plus North Korea were required to report by stages to designated INS offices where they were asked to produce documents that suited the discretion of officials present, interviewed, finger printed, photographed and, in some cases, detained under deplorable conditions until processed, sent to jail or released on bond.

The abuses of registration under NSEERS became so notorious that two prominent US Senators, Russel D. Feingold and Edward M. Kennedy addressed a letter to the Attorney General John Ashcroft, urging him to suspend the implementation of NSEERS registration and to open up the records of proceedings under the program. The Senators wrote that "this special registration program appears to be a component of a second wave of roundups and detentions of Arab and Muslim males disguised as perfunctory registration requirement." They added that "You have failed to identify most of the hundreds of individuals arrested and detained in the wake of September 11... This pattern of targeting persons for arrest , based on race, religion, ethnicity or national origin rather than on specific evidence of criminal activity serves to undermine the trust of the American people, ..." (ADC Press Release, December 26, 02, accessible:

The trust and concerns of the American people has in fact come under constant manipulation since 9/11 by their government and its compliant media networks, maintaining a relentless focus on the imminence of another terrorist attack on American targets by enemy agents stereotyped as Middle Eastern and Asian Muslims. The Department of Homeland Security, a monolithic bureaucracy created in 2002 has kept the American public in a continuous state of alarm and mass hysteria by frequently issuing its color-coded threat level advisories of terrorist attacks. The imaginary or suspected high level terrorist threats (Red and Orange) are always preceded by some disclosed or undisclosed findings of suspicious activities by Arab and other Muslims whether American citizens or not.

Late Edward Said, a Palestinian-born American citizen and a distinguished professor at New York's Colombia University wrote , "I don't know a single Arab or Muslim American who does not now feel that he or she belongs to the enemy camp, and that being in the United states at this moment provides us with an specially unpleasant experience of alienation and widespread, quite specifically targeted hostility. ... Hundreds of young Arab and Muslim men have been picked up for questioning and, in far too many cases, detained by the police or the FBI. Anyone by an Arab or Muslim name is usually made to stand aside for special attention during airport security checks." (Al-Ahram Weekly, 26 Feb. - 6 March, 2002).

One's religion not being a visible attribute, it is the color of ones skin and physical appearance which in America attracts suspicion of being a terrorist, leading to harassment by civilian vigilantes and security guards. This became painfully evident to the distinguished Indian-born Canadian novelist Rohinton Mistry in October 2002 when he flew to America on a book signing tour organized by his U. S. publisher. Neither a Muslim, nor from a country identified by the United States for its terrorist connections, as Mistry embarked on his journey with his wife, he was pulled aside for special security checks at every single American airport until he decided to cancel the rest of his tour and return home. Back in Canada he told press reporters that he found his security checks non-random and "degrading," giving him the "visions of Guantanamo." (Globe and Mail, November 3, 2002).

The mistreatment of a high profile person like Mistry by American security guards received wide international media coverage. Hundreds of other Canadians of ancestry in NSEERS listed countries have also been subjected to similar or worse treatment while on visits to the United states. For many of them such visits are a part of their cross-border business and professional duties. As complaints from these travelers mounted, Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs had to issue a travel advisory in the Autumn of 2002 warning Canadians born in NSEERS listed countries to stay away from the United States. The advisory specially warned Canadians born in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan that they could attract "special attention from American immigration and security authorities." The Foreign Affairs Minister told the Canadian House of Commons that he had protested to his U. S. counterpart, but "We can't tell Americans what to do on their own territory. ... What we are telling them is that we do not accept this and we find it very troubling." (Globe and Mail, 31 October, 2002).

Canada's own record of treatment of its immigrant communities from the Middle Eastern and other Muslim countries since 9/11 leaves much to be desired. But that is another story that has to be understood in the context of Canada's cultural, economic and defense integration with the United States as a junior partner.

What is more disturbing is that no one was speaking to the U. S. authorities on behalf of people from the Third World countries such as Pakistan caught in the INS "anti-terrorist" sweep. On recent visits to Pakistan I found a widespread public impression that Pakistani community in America was in deep trouble. Over a thousand working class Pakistanis who had ended up in America as economic or political refugees were deported back to Pakistan in the aftermath of 9/11. Many others who had acquired U. S. citizenship and were settled there in medical and other professions had voluntarily returned to Pakistan rather than living and raising their children in an environment of increasing racial discrimination and state surveillance. Then, there were many first and second hand "horror stories" circulating about the experiences of Pakistanis in America. These involved many non-immigrant visitors who had been singled out for invasive security checks at the U. S. airports and immigrant Pakistanis subjected to raids at their homes or places of work, who were rounded up by police and FBI agents and mistreated, detained or jailed without being charged or convicted of any offence. There was also an interesting story circulating about a General of the Pakistan Army in command of anti Taliban/al-Qaeda operations on the Afghanistan border who was on his way to a military conference in America. The General was detained at New York's Kennedy International Airport and made to walk barefoot to his interrogation.

All these stories would sound bizarre to someone familiar with Pakistan's history of supporting and fighting the U. S. wars as a front line state, first against the Soviet communists and now against the "al-Qaeda jehadis in Afghanistan.

But America's global war on terrorism is itself a bizarre exercise which does not admit of any analysis in terms of conventional causal logic or principles of justice and equity. The lesser world powers have to go along with it or be branded as foes of America and pay the price. War involves collateral damage, we are told. Americans who have lost their constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties and the victims of crackdowns on immigrants and visitors to America have to be viewed simply as collateral damage of America's domestic war on terrorism, just as thousands of innocent Afghans and Iraqis being killed and injured represent the collateral damage of War on terrorism abroad. What is more alarming is that this domestic collateral damage promises to be a permanent impairment of American civil society. A post-9/11 publication coming out of official Washington reassures Americans that "Our nation suffered great harm on that terrible morning. ... There should be no doubt that we will succeed in weaving an effective and permanent level of security into the fabric of a better, safer, stronger America." (National Strategy for Homeland Security, Washington DC, July 2002, p. 69).

As this "permanent security" is being woven into the fabric of American society, what does it mean specifically with respect to the human rights and legal protections of people visiting America or transiting through America to other countries? The position taken by the U. S. government lawyers in a recently filed civil suit provides an incisive answer to this question.

Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen was flying back to Ottawa on September 26, 2002 from a trip abroad. While in transit through the Kennedy International Airport he was detained as a terrorist suspect and held in solitary confinement in a Brooklyn detention center for 12 days. After that he was deported to Syria where he was born under the U. S. policy of "extraordinary rendition." This policy is used by Americans to send suspected detainees to other countries which practice torture.

As expected, Arar was severely tortured in Syria before being allowed to return to Canada. In January 2004 he filed a civil suit, through his lawyers, in a Brooklyn Federal Court challenging the practice of "extraordinary rendition" and violation of his human rights. The preliminary hearing of the suit came up in August 2005.

What the lawyers of the U. S. Department of Justice deposed in this case before the federal court to argue for the dismissal of Arar's law suit is a remarkably clear exposition of how Washington views the status of foreign visitors to America. The Court was told by these attorneys that foreign citizens who change planes at airports in the United States can legally be seized, detained without charge, deported, deprived of a lawyer or courts and even denied basic necessities like food. (New York Times, August 10, 2005).

What is even more frightening is that any one of the multitude of U. S. Border guards has the unquestioned, on-the-spot power to decide which one among the foreign visitors who shows up at a U. S. port of entry with no legal rights will be detained and which one will be allowed to proceed to his or her destination. These functionaries are poorly educated and have little more than their mutually reinforced racial and ethnic prejudices and stereotypes to guide them in their decisions.

The irrationalities of America's domestic war on terrorism are reflected in every device invented to make America more "safer." Take for example the secret "No-Fly" list established after 9/11 by the department of Homeland Security to stop possible terrorists from boarding planes at any airport in America. Although the list has been used to subject thousands of citizens and non-citizens of America to intensive interrogations and searches, while trying to board their flights, none has yet been arrested and tried for any terrorist act. What has frequently happened and made news is that travelers, including babies in arms and well known American personalities, have been blocked from boarding their flights at American airports because their names happened to be same or similar to someone on the computerized and growing "No-Fly" list. In March 2004

U. S. Senator Edward Kennedy was stopped and questioned five times while trying to catch domestic flights because his name or a name similar to his appeared on the secret list. He had to pull strings at the highest levels to get his name removed from the list of possible terrorists. For thousands of others whose names are on the list or similar to those on the list, there is no recourse. They are permanently debarred from flying without even knowing why. Although no significant opposition to the uses and abuses of the list has appeared in America there are murmurs emanating from the civil liberties groups to the effect that the list is being used as a tool to harass dissenters such as anti-Iraq war protesters, environmental activists, anti-free trade activists and others.

The amazing part of all this is the acquiescence with which the people of the "greatest democracy" in history have given up their constitutionally protected democratic freedoms and the utter contempt with wich their government violates the civil and human rights of visitors to their country on a daily basis. One no doubt hears some voices of protest against the draconian acts like the USA-PATRIOT by advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. But there is no revolt of the intellectuals, no contentious debates in the academia and no signs of a political movement to resist the transformation of America from the superpower that it is to a super police state.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)
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