(Editor's Note: this was written by Katherine R, and for reasons that will shortly become obvious I'm rather sadly posting it on her behalf. I hope that I got the formatting right, and.... well, read.)
Author’s Note: This is actually by Katherine, and it will be my last post here. I've threatened (promised?) that before, I know, but this time I'm certain of it. No cosmic reasons--just a lack of time, a lot of things to do, a feeling that I've said what I have to say and have started to repeat myself, and the fact that the floppy where I stored my typepad password broke a week and a half ago. I chose to interpret that last one as a sign, so instead of asking Moe if I could set up a new account, I asked him to put up one final post for me.
Since I started writing here, I've focused more and more on one topic: U.S. human rights abuses towards people we suspect of terrorism. I thought I might close by explaining, on a more personal level than I have before, why this is.
It’s very long, probably too long, but I hope you’ll find it worth reading.
Thanks to all readers, commenters, linkers, and especially co-bloggers. This has been fun, and actually pretty useful in sorting out what I want to do with my career. (Whether I can actually do it is another question, but this is a start.)
(Another Editor's Note: ...and she'll always have a place for her waiting here.)
“As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations...By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels. For as to be in pain or distress of any kind excites the most excessive sorrow, so to conceive or to imagine that we are in it, excites some degree of the same emotion, in proportion to the vivacity or dulness of the conception."--Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759.
I won't describe where I was that day, or what I felt; you obviously remember where you were and what you felt. You saw the same images I saw. I would guess that even now, when there has been more time since an attack than you thought we would ever have again, you can imagine the worst case scenario. Perhaps in New York, perhaps in your own city. The fires and the frantic cell phone calls. The bewildered crowds fleeing the clouds of ash on foot. The full or eerily empty emergency rooms. You probably cannot come much closer than I can to understanding what it would really feel like to be trapped there, or to find out that your family member had vanished. But voluntarily or involuntarily, consciously or subconsciously, you have made the attempt. It is a plausible scenario.
The opposite extreme is not plausible. You cannot imagine the stray air strike that hits the apartment building. Not the relative or friend disappeared, not into the air but into some unknown prison. Not the deportation to a country you can barely remember. Not the questions you know you can never answer to their satisfaction, because you are innocent. Not the complete powerlessness of solitary confinement for--you have no idea when it will end, or if it will end. Certainly not the abuse or torture.
Maybe I'm wrong; maybe you can imagine it. If so you are doing better than I was for almost two years after the attacks. Like any good liberal, I was vaguely concerned about the Patriot Act, about civil liberties, about how immigrants were being treated. But it was all very abstract. I did not see the flaws in the ticking time bomb hypothetical. I nodded thoughtfully and agreed that there were no easy answers. I was against torture, against mass arrests based on nationality and religion, against indefinite detention, against arbitrary deportation--but I wasn’t an extremist or anything, I could see the other side's point of view. Anyway, it just wasn't something I thought about very much.
This began to change last August. A very close friend of mine, someone who was in my wedding, was detained and questioned by homeland security for two hours. A misunderstanding. A college friend was visiting with his younger brother, and they took some snapshots outside my friend’s apartment. They did not know it, but there were some federal buildings in the camera’s viewfinder. It is hard to take a picture in that neighborhood without including a federal building--it's an area that is full of likely targets, that was evacuated for several weeks after September 11, where a dozen national guardsmen patrol the subway station during every orange alert. (I used to deal with my fears about my friends and family being hurt or killed in a terrorist attack by organizing my worries into a careful hierarchy; this friend was always at the top.)
The visiting college friends were South Asian, which was almost certainly not a coincidence.
Two hours of questions and background checks. Not that long, really. The officers were professional about it; there was no intimidation beyond the intrinsic intimidation of being detained and interrogated in separate rooms. My friend--a bit shaken up, but basically fine--said to me, "Thank God we were all U.S. citizens, though. I hate to think what would've happened if any of us hadn't been."
After that, the hypotheticals looked different, and much less hypothetical. Oh, I didn't think they had been in any real danger. But they could have been born in another country, easily enough; could have had made some minor error on an I.N.S. form, easily enough; could have been Muslim, easily enough; could have been an acquaintance of an acquaintance of a brother of a terrorism suspect, easily enough. It no longer required any great imagination, when I read the news stories, to picture these things happening to someone I loved.
I knew I was probably being a bit melodramatic about all this; that my imagination, once it gets going, can be somewhat overactive. Probably nothing so terrible would have happened even if they'd been immigrants.
It wasn’t until last week that I read an article in the New York Times*, and found out that my imagination had still been underactive.
II. The Man From Katmandu and the Building in Sunset Park
The story could begin like a limerick: There once was a man from Katmandu. But his name was Purna Raj Bajracharya, and try finding a rhyme for that. His wife and two sons still lived in Nepal, but he had come to New York City for a while to try to earn some extra money for his family. He overstayed his visa, as so many people do. He worked at a flower store, a pizza place, did other small jobs.
In October of 2001, he was detained and questioned by the FBI. A misunderstanding. He was making a videotape of his neighborhood to send to his wife in Katmandu. He did not know it, but there was a federal building in the camcorder’s viewfinder, and three floors of the building held FBI offices.
It took less than a week for the FBI to figure out that he was no terrorist, probably only took that long because his English was not so good. But by then the man had been placed in solitary confinement in the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center. His case was designated as a “special interest”, national security related matter, and removed from the public record. He was kept in a six foot by nine foot cell, where the lights were never turned off.
He told the New York Times he was stripped naked, and “manhandled and treated badly”. He did not go into more detail than that, but that prison is known for its abuse of detainees in the months after September 11. It is one of the places where Maher Arar was held before he was deported to Syria; the place where the D.O.J.’s Inspector General reported widespread prisoner abuse; the place where Javaid Iqbal and Ehab Elmaghraby allege that they were
repeatedly slammed into walls and dragged across the floor while shackled and manacled, kicked and punched until they bled, cursed as "terrorists" and "Muslim bastards," and subjected to multiple unnecessary body-cavity searches, including one during which correction officers inserted a flashlight into Mr. Elmaghraby's rectum, making him bleed.
The FBI finished its report clearing Purna Bajracharya of any involvement in terrorism in November 1. He was told that he would probably be on the plane back to Katmandu in a week or so. He did not really object to being deported; he knew he had broken the immigration laws and he had always planned to return to Nepal after a few years. He just wanted to get out of prison and go home. Instead, he remained in the too-bright six by nine cell for two and a half more months.
It was only that short because he got lucky. The FBI agent assigned to the case, James Wynne, was a very decent guy. He took the frantic phone calls from the prisoner’s family seriously. He discussed the case with his superiors, tried to get the necessary signatures and stamps on his report faster, spoke to Bajracharya through a translator after the secret immigration hearings. When a month had passed, he saw that the detainee was growing desparate, and it was clear this would not end anytime soon, Wynne called in a legal aid lawyer.
She came to the next secret hearing and met her client. Her first sight of him, she told the Times, was being “carried in by three burly officers of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, shackled so completely that he could not move. "He's tiny," she said. "His feet didn't even touch the floor." She convinced the immigration officials that he had been cleared by the FBI and should be allowed to leave the country. She bought his plane ticket to Nepal, at their instructions. But his departure was cancelled without explanation.
By then he was in very bad shape:
"After a month or two, I started to scream that I was going to die if I didn't talk to anybody," he later recalled.
Cassin [the lawyer] said she pleaded with the prison doctor to put him in the general prison population, but the doctor said he was crying so much he would cause a riot. Instead, on Dec. 11, a Muslim detainee was sent to share his tiny cell.
He was finally allowed to go back to Katmandu on January 13, 2002. He had asked to go back in decent clothes instead of the prison jumpsuit, and Agent Wynne shipped over the suit he’d worn the day he came the United States, but that was also lost somewhere.
I drove past the Brooklyn MDC while Purna Bajracharya was being held there. The prison is in Sunset Park, on 29th Street between Second and Third Avenues. Less than a block from the BQE, and in late December of 2001 we took the BQE all the way down from the Kosciusko Bridge to the last exit before the Verrazano. It was the first year my husband took me to see the ridiculous Christmas light displays in Dyker Heights; it’s one of his family’s Chanukah traditions. We must have driven right by it.
I never saw it, then or any other time. I couldn’t even tell you what the building looks like.
No one will ever be prosecuted for the abuses there. The D.O.J. considered it, but
A spokesman for the United States attorney's office in Brooklyn, Robert Nardoza, said the office recently declined to prosecute abuses detailed in the reports "mainly because all of the witnesses had been deported and were unavailable to be interviewed."
You could argue that overstaying your visa, as Purna Bajracharya did, is a serious violation of our laws and the main way that people immigrate here illegally. But we have been disappearing and deporting people for much, much less than that. If you move, and forget to notify the I.N.S. of your change of address within ten days, that is enough. If the I.N.S. loses your change of address form, that is enough--and the I.N.S. has lost millions of them:
In limestone mines 60 feet beneath the ground outside Kansas City, Mo., the Immigration and Naturalization Service has collected 2 million documents filed by immigrants but lost or forgotten by the agency. The documents include 200,000 unfiled change-of-address cards, key elements in the federal effort to keep track of immigrants, of greater concern since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Estimates of the number of change-of-address cards the INS has mishandled over the years run into the millions. (San Diego Union-Tribune, 6/29/02. Full text available here.)
III. “Courage in the Face of Pain Felt by Strangers”**
I suppose I should warn you that this could happen to you. The thing is, it probably won’t. God only knows what would have happened if my friend had been born in another country and the I.N.S. had buried his last change of address form in some limestone mine, but he wasn’t, and they hadn’t, and he was fine.
If you’re as white and as female and as non-threatening in appearance as I am, you can probably take all the pictures of all the likely targets you want without even being questioned. If you are questioned, and you’re a U.S. citizen, you will probably sort out the misunderstanding in an hour or two. They’re not going to deport you anywhere. You obviously can’t be detained in Iraq. It will take some bizarre, Three’s-Company-on-hallucinogens series of misunderstandings to convince them you are an “enemy combatant”. Even if that happens—assuming they’re even allowed to hold citizens captured on U.S. soil as “enemy combatants” when the courts get through with Padilla, which is unlikely—you will have the right to a hearing and a lawyer.
Unless you’re close to a lot of Muslims, or Arabs, or immigrants, this probably will not directly affect you. It’s more likely (though still very unlikely) that a family member or friend of yours will be killed in a terrorist attack. And no, there isn’t any doubt about which horror is worse. Yes, I would rather my relatives disappear into a prison, be deported, even be abused, than disappear from the earth. I don’t know how many prisoners have been tortured, but it’s almost certainly fewer than the 3000 innocents bin Laden has murdered, let alone the 4 million more of us he has promised to murder. Yes, it is better to hurt people in an attempt at self defense or democracy building, however misguided, than to kill them for the sake of killing them.
But “better than Al Qaeda” may be the faintest, most damning praise I have heard in my life. This is our government; we have more control over it than we will ever have over a band of fanatical murderers in the caves of Waziristan. And I know, I know, that one nightmare only makes the other more likely.
It will probably never happen to us, but it has happened to people as innocent as us. We know this now. There are news articles, Red Cross reports, eyewitness accounts, declassified documents, photographs. Apparently there are also videotapes.
If we’re safe, it’s not because of any of virtue on our part It’s because of a blind, lucky accident of birth. Or, depending on your interpretation, because our parents, grandparents, or more distant ancestors risked the journey here from someplace else. Or because exactly 228 years and 5 days ago, a group of Englishmen imagined a different sort of country.
Last Sunday, July 4, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote that,
Today, those who believe that the war on terror requires the sacrifice of our liberties like to argue that "the Constitution is not a suicide pact." In a sense, however, the Declaration of Independence was precisely that.
By signing Jefferson's text, the signers of the declaration were putting their lives on the line. England was then the world's greatest military power, against which a bunch of provincial farmers had little chance of prevailing. Benjamin Franklin wasn't kidding around with his quip about hanging together or hanging separately. If the rebel American militias were beaten on the battlefield, their ringleaders could expect to be hanged as traitors.
We do not need to take anywhere near that kind of risk, or any risk at all. Our leaders answer to us--slowly, reluctantly, and only when they think it puts their re-election in danger, but in the end they do answer to us. We have a say in all this. We do not have to become this kind of country. We do not have to torture people or send them to torturers. We do not have to let Jefferson’s eloquent phrases become empty slogans mouthed to justify anything. We do not have to put up with this shit. If it were our relatives being waterboarded and abused and deported, we would not put up with it.
As it is, I am afraid that we may lack the imagination.
*I spent a long time writing this, and the New York Times link has gone into the archives. This is the same text, reprinted in a dinky local paper. Just to be clear—Section II is based almost entirely on this Times article, and that is where all the quotations are from unless I specifically cite to another source. I thought footnoting each paragraph or sentence would just be annoying, but it’s all Bernstein’s work.
**A phrase stolen from this post by Mark A. R. Kleiman.