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Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice. Compiled and edited by Alia Malek. San Francisco: McSweeney’s Books/Voice of Witness Series, 2011.
I didn’t know I wasn’t an American until I was sixteen and in handcuffs. (Adama Bah)
This time I got pulled out of the car by officers, thrown onto the hood of the car, and handcuffed. My kids were screaming in the backseat, everybody in the car was just screaming and crying. I said to the officers, “I was born and raised in this country! I was in the military!” For some reason I kept thinking this meant something to somebody. (Zak Muhammad Reed)
I have not touched my father since December 2007. If I had known, I could have made that hug last longer. (Sara Jayyousi)
I said, “Hi, this is Yasir Afifi. How can I help you?” The agent said, “Hey, Yasir. Oh, it’s nothing, we just received an anonymous tip from someone who said that you may be a threat to national security.” I said, “Great! How can I help you?” (Yasir Afifi)
The cop said, “We had two calls. One said that there’s suspicious activity, seven guys kissing the ground, and the other call said that there might be prayer.” (Faheem Muhammad)
Twenty-three years is a very long time to wait for my son’s release. (Shaheena Parveen)
Over the past several weeks, National Geographic Channel has been promoting its interview with George W. Bush with an ad showing the former President, looking suitably pensive, and the tag line: “9/11 has been covered from every perspective. Except his.”
Falser words have rarely been spoken. The terms of the narrative that is “9/11” were set within days, and the terms were those dictated by the Bush administration. On 20 September, in a speech before a joint session of Congress, Bush set out the 9/11 narrative, which became the only permissible one: “On September the eleventh, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country.” The nature of the response to come was also made clear: “Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen.” It was to be a war of “covert operations, secret even in success.” And the conditions being imposed upon the rest of the world, in terms of possible responses to this war, were also clearly set out in Bush’s speech: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
This was the War on Terror, still ongoing, from which the world has yet to recover. The terms set by Bush and his administration, and carried forward by the Obama administration, have defined and determined the lived reality of millions of people since September 2001. This reality makes it nearly impossible to view the first decade of this century through any framework other than that of 9/11, so that, in Alia Malek’s evocative phrase, we continue to find ourselves today “in the decade of a September morning.”
As Lisa Hajjar has noted within days of 11 September, 2001, “the Bush administration started making decisions that led to the official authorization of torture tactics, indefinite incommunicado detention and the denial of habeas corpus for people who would be detained at Guantánamo, Bagram, or "black sites" (secret prisons) run by the Central Intelligence Administration (CIA), kidnappings, forced disappearances and extraordinary rendition to foreign countries to exploit their torturing services.” One of the results of these decisions was the carrying out of a war that was simultaneously international and domestic, and, indeed, that blurred the boundaries between these two domains.
Even a simple chronology reveals the intertwining of these two aspects of this single war. On 17 September, 2001, President Bush secretly authorized the CIA’s use of extraordinary rendition to “black sites.” On 18 September, the Justice Department issued an interim expansion of its powers that allowed it to detain non-citizens (including documented immigrants) indefinitely. On 7 October, US bombing strikes against Afghanistan began. On 11 October, the Justice Department and Attorney General Ashcroft assumed full control of terrorism-related prosecutions previously overseen by the New York office of the US Attorney. On 1 August, 2002, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel presented its infamous memo to the White House justifying the use of torture for terrorism suspects. And on 11 September, 2002, the Department of Justice began its infamous Special Registration program, targeting “non-immigrant aliens” from certain Muslim-majority countries (plus North Korea and Eritrea). On 18 March, 2003, the Department of Homeland Security announced Operation Liberty Shield, which required the detention of asylum seekers originating from any of thirty-four listed countries with “active terrorist groups.” And on 20 March, 2003, the US attack on Iraq began.
Now I feel kind of broken, like our world was turned upside-down and I haven’t really found my footing yet. I feel like we are hanging on by the tips of our fingernails. I feel like a refugee in my own country. (Rima Qamri)
He said Salman might be with the INS. I asked why, and he said, “Because he’s not born here.” I said, “Even if he’s a citizen?” He said, “The dividing line is whether he was born a citizen or not.” (Talat Hamdani)
I thought, "this is the same country that invades Iraq, destroys my nation, and makes me leave my home in the first place. And now, this is what they do to me in New York. They take away my freedoms here as well." It was such an irony. It was so painful. (Raed Jarrar)
When one is held in solitary confinement, the prison guard escorts him outside into a caged area in the open air, just like the cage that houses an animal in the zoo. (Ghassan Elashi)
I looked like the people they wanted to deport, I had an Arabic name, I was Latino, and I had been convicted of a crime. In the eyes of certain Americans, I was less than human. To them, I was disposable. It didn’t matter that I had American children or that I had helped, in my way, to build the city and neighborhood where I lived. (Farid Rodriguez)
“Dehumanizing, or in this case, de-Americanizing, individuals is often the first step toward justifying policies, laws, and treatment that would otherwise offend our sensibilities,” writes Alia Malek in her introduction to Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice. She continues: “Even though myriad actors from across American society have participated in this process, the personal stories and lived experiences of those realities remain excluded from the general understanding of the American experience, as well as the mainstream narrative about 9/11 and the War on Terror.” The goal of Patriot Acts, she suggests, is to “give voice” to some of these excluded and untold stories.
It succeeds brilliantly. Even amidst the mind-numbing cacophony of voices demanding our attention as we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the voices represented in Patriot Acts make themselves heard with clarity, sorrow, anger, compassion, and strength. If there is one book that is necessary reading for this anniversary, it is this one.
Patriot Acts appears as part of the Voice of Witness oral history series published by McSweeney’s Books. The eighteen oral narratives in the book are presented between Malek’s fine introduction and an impressive series of appendices, including a glossary, a timeline dating back to the Naturalization Act of 1790 (from which I obtained the chronology set out above), an in-depth analysis of US “counterterrorism” since 9/11, and a listing of the payouts and settlements resulting from lawsuits related to the War on Terror. These appendices are worth a close study in themselves, the only complaint being that there is not much said about the particular ways many of the policies described have been carried out and extended by the Obama administration, which, for example, has overseen the deportation of more than one million people since 2008.
Especially noteworthy among these appendices is the section that recasts the standard debate about achieving a balance between “security” versus “liberty,” by noting that in fact, it is largely the liberty of a minority group that has been sacrificed in the name of the majority’s security demands—or, as Ronald Dworkin has put it, “The only balance in question is between the majority’s security and other people’s rights.”
But it is the oral narratives themselves that form the heart of the book, and indeed, once you have made your way through them, Dworkin’s point seems blindingly obvious in the light of the experiences set out in these stories. One of the great virtues of Patriot Acts is that these narratives are not simply enumerations of “case histories.” Each is a story of a real and concrete injustice (or, in most cases, a series of injustices), but none is simply a story of injustice. Each starts from a different point in time, and each includes personal details that set off the individual storyteller from his or her particular “case,” rendering individual stories as alternately funny, infuriating, and heartbreaking. I was reminded of the distinction drawn by Moustafa Bayoumi in his book How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America between “profiles"— the simplified and stereotyped forms of description used by law enforcement and other institutions—versus “portraits"—fully worked out, individualized representations of actual people. The oral narratives in Patriot Acts definitely belong to the second category, and the beautifully drawn portraits by Julien Lallemand that accompany many of the narratives contribute to this articulation and representation of individual personalities.
Each story is told in the first person, and there is a bracing sense of eccentricity in each individual narrative. The book’s acknowledgements page lists a whole team of interviewers, transcribers, translators, and others, but they have done a very effective job of rendering themselves invisible, in the interest of the voices being represented. Our job, like theirs, is, in the presence of these stories: to listen.
To try to encapsulate or describe or summarize any of these stories would be to do violence to them, to recast them in someone else’s words, in my words. They deserve to be heard in their original voices. So listen.
I stayed there six and a half weeks. By the time I came out, I was seventeen. Federal agents picked me up. This guard walked past, and he said, “Arrest that fucking nigger terrorist.” (Adama Bah)
For the first time, I felt like I was looked at differently for being a Muslim. I wondered what had happened all of a sudden. That very day, we felt like something had changed. (Uzma Naheed Abbasi)
Until that moment, I was all invested in becoming an American. I’d told everyone, “I’m a new American. I don’t want to be put in a corner and be called an Arab-American or a Muslim-American or a brown-American or whatever, I just want to be an American.” But after this happened to me in the airport, I thought to myself, This wouldn’t happen to some white guy with blue eyes and blond hair. (Raed Jarrar)
They asked me if I was “an Islamic,” which took me aback a little bit. Presumably, they meant to ask if I was Muslim, and I said no. (Nick George)
As a black person, it's not totally strange for bogus charges to be brought up against you for ulterior motives. I'm thinking the Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Movement, the Black Liberation Front, those histories. That black consciousness and that black revolutionary narrative combined with the current political, social, and legal environment around Muslims, Islam, and terrorism made for what appeared to be a deadly recipe. (Amir Sulaiman)
I did not bring this lawsuit to harm America. I brought the lawsuit because I want to know why America harmed me. (Khaled El-Masri)
It feels so good letting someone else know about this. It’s the best feeling in the world. You feel like you’re educating someone on something that is really inhumane, something that’s not supposed to be going on. It’s like you’re letting them in on a secret, but it’s not a good one. Carrying secrets around is horrible. Lately I’ve been feeling like there is a hole in my chest or something. (Sara Jayyousi)
As soon as I got out of that room, something in me just triggered. I told myself, “I’m done. I’m tired. I am not going to go through this again.” I told my lawyers, “I want to sue those motherfuckers." And so we filed a lawsuit against Attorney General Eric Holder, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller, and Director of the Terrorist Screening Center Timothy Healy. (Adama Bah)
I am afraid, particularly when I see the faces of officers. I’ve seen how easily they can manufacture things and place any sort of blame, especially in regard to Muslims. They can say anything and people would be ready to believe it, and the media would be ready to broadcast it. (Shaheena Parveen)
My position wasn’t “I’m an American and therefore I have the right to speak and so I’m somehow petitioning for this right.” My position was that my right to speak is God-given, that it’s a truly inalienable right, and not just because some men agree that it’s inalienable. I wasn’t interested in surrendering that right, and I wasn’t interested in humiliating myself in front of people by begging for a right that they neither have the power to give nor revoke. (Amir Sulaiman)
A book like Patriot Acts must be, by its nature, inconclusive. Containing as it does eighteen individual narratives of eighteen individual experiences of injustice, it cannot be reduced to any particular argument or position. It will be up to each reader to draw a particular set of impressions from what s/he has heard in this book. For me, some of these impressions clustered around particular themes.
First: the banality of evil (as if we needed another lesson) and the ordinariness of the places where these acts of extraordinary violence, cruelty, and injustice have been carried out. A description from one narrative carries the echo of similar descriptions in many of the others: It’s a big room with a bunch of desks, where all the police are working, and at the one end they have the cell: this one glass wall. And then it is all tile floors and ceiling and wall, with a little bench. Since many of these are stories of indefinite detentions, the sense of detail in these descriptions is all the more chilling.
Second: the span of time covered by these narratives. The final story in the book, that of Nick George, is, I think, meant to shock because of the circumstances: George, a Pomona College student and self-described “average-looking Caucasian male with blonde hair and green eyes,” was detained at the airport in Philadelphia, handcuffed, and held in a locked cell for several hours, simply for carrying a set of Arabic flashcards he was using for one of his classes. (Then they asked me, “So you understand why you’re here, right?” I said, “Honestly, I don’t.” And they said, “Well then, you’re a fucking idiot. Do you need me to get the flashcards?”) But more startling to me was the date: August 2009. Any sense that the injustices described in Patriot Acts are the result of some temporary panic in the immediate wake of 9/11 needs to be laid to rest; what we see here are the results of a systematic set of processes, with no end in sight.
Third: amidst these stories that have not previously been heard, the stories that, by their nature, can never be heard, the ones that have been lost, amidst so many other losses of this bloody decade. To its great credit, the book manages to at least gesture towards those stories that are beyond the scope of such an oral history project: the stories of those who have disappeared from the narrative (I haven’t spoken to Tashnuba since then. She’d told me that her mother made an agreement with the federal government: if they released her daughter, they would go back to their country, no problems. I think their country was Bangladesh. So as soon as she was released, it was right to the airport) as well as all those whose stories of injustice ended in death (In Passaic County, we were treated like animals. I thought, If even the staff who are supposed to protect us see us as animals, I could definitely die here).
And finally: the question of what sort of power, if any, the telling of these stories may prove to have. The narrative of “9/11” is incredibly strong. Part of its strength lies in its ability to take up every available space (“9/11 has been covered from every perspective. Except his.”). How, and to what end, can such a narrative be countered? In her foreword to the book, Karen Korematsu writes, “I believe that stories like these are the best form of education.” I wish I could share this optimism. I am not sure these stories can have concrete, immediate, tangible effects; I am only sure that they are necessary, as oxygen, for whatever sort of just future we can imagine in the next decade.
On this point, as others, it is best to begin by listening. Has not there been enough speaking about 9/11? Perhaps it’s time for a form of solidarity built around the act of listening.
Ten years after 9/11, this country is deporting more people than ever. It’s important that we, especially those of us who come from “other” cultures, listen to each other’s stories. It may inspire someone to ask for justice. (Farid Rodriguez)
The struggle, then, is away from Bush’s “with us or against us” and away from “our security” versus “their rights.” It is towards the realization that we all come from “other” cultures, and we all have to listen to each other’s stories. And we all have to ask for justice.
The final words belong to the poet Amir Sulaiman, describing his poem “Danger”:
I said, “This poem has four reasons for being. Number one, it’s a poem of desperation. Number two, it is a poem to remind those who would like to be reminded. Number three, it’s a poem to remind those who would like not to be reminded. And number four, it’s to inform those who don’t know.”
The same can be said of Patriot Acts. Anyone who falls into any of these categories—that is to say, every single one of us—needs to listen to these voices.
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