By Meteor Blades
It is said that Osama bin Laden was surprised but gleeful upon learning that his hand-picked hijackers had done more than expected and toppled the twin towers of the World Trade Center. But the devastation of that attack five years ago caused minuscule damage compared with the dirty bomb that the Senate and House have exploded in our midst this week. The rule of law is contaminated. In the clash of civilizations, civilization took another hit.
If al Qaeda held five seats in the U.S. Senate, does anyone doubt that there would be five more ayes today to approve the Dungeons and Rendition Act? It wasn’t, however, al Qaeda that voted for torture and against habeas corpus. This was the act of men and women who swore an oath to the Constitution they have now chosen to eviscerate. Not all at once, mind you, rather death by a thousand cuts.
About an hour ago, I got off the phone with my stepson. He confirmed for me what my wife and I have known was coming for months. He has chosen after five years in America to move to England. His mother, who didn’t see or talk to him or his sister for 15 years because their father had kidnapped them to Libya, is obviously much saddened by this decision. That sadness pales beside her rage.
When he told me he had been watching C-Span yesterday and today, I knew I was fighting a losing battle because he hadn't even waited for the final vote. Still, I tried my best to persuade him to, at least, delay his decision, remain in school the rest of the term. We can change things, I said. We can turn this around. I concede that I wasn’t all that convincing even to myself.
Trouble is, it wasn’t the Dungeons and Rendition Act that started my stepson down this path. Merely the final spark. He’s been thinking about leaving for some time. Watching Ted Koppel’s The Price of Security a few weeks ago just about clinched the deal. It was on that show our family heard the results of a Discovery Channel-Time magazine poll. Of the 1001 respondents, 47% said Arab-Americans should have their ethnic origin stamped on their identity cards. With a margin of error at 3.3%, that’s half of Americans. And 25% agreed that it would be a good idea to put Arab-Americans in camps until their loyalty can be appraised. The pollsters didn’t inquire if respondents thought torture should be used for this determination. Nor if Arab-Americans should be required sew a red crescent on their clothes. Nor whether the government should be allowed to grab suspects off the street and disappear them into secret prisons outside the reach of attorneys.
But one can imagine how they might have responded had they been asked.
My stepson – let me, as I have done before, call him Ibrahim, although that is not his name – didn’t have to imagine. Born in Oregon, Ibrahim lived from 1983 until 2001 in Libya, a dictatorship where such things are done regularly. Two of his uncles spent time in Moammar Qadafi’s prisons in the ‘80s. Then and now, loose talk about the colonel and the wreckage he has made of a potentially rich country is unwise. Today, while the Bush Regime talks democracy in the Arab world, Qadafi has become one of Washington’s new best friends.
His human rights record is ignored. His foreign intelligence chief, Musa Kousa, the plotter of the Pan Am 103 bombing above Lockerbie, regularly meets with CIA officials as high as deputy directors to chat about terrorists and tradecraft over tea. They’ve traded more than information. CIA rendition flights have touched down in Libya. Prisoners have moved from Libyan custody to American, and vice versa. But, then, what should one expect when the czar of U.S. intelligence has death squads on his résumé?
Meanwhile, as U.S. and British oil companies have renewed their seismic activities in the two-thirds of the Libyan desert yet to be explored, Libyan society has moved ever more speedily in a fundamentalist direction, a product of an estimated 40% unemployment and the delegitimization and brutal suppression of any opposition. Wearing of hijab once seemed on the way out, but now more and more women wear scarves and veils, Saudi style. Domestic intelligence chief Abdullah Sanussi once claimed to know every man in Tripoli with a beard. No more. They are everywhere. Violent jihad is not spoken of aloud, but its whispers seethe.
After being reunited in Libya with his mother in 1998, Ibrahim and his sister met my wife and me in Malta in 2000. It was an appropriate destination. For millennia, it’s been a meeting place between east and west. In that year before Nine-Eleven, you could still obtain an American passport at any embassy. Both Ibrahim and his sister needed new ones because the embargo against terrorist Libya barred them from traveling to the U.S. on their Libyan passports.
Freedom and democracy were two treasured words for Ibrahim. A perfect contrast to the oppressive, murderous dictatorship he lived in. He knew America from the music he listened to on pirated CDs and the muscle cars he drooled over on partially censored American movies shown on Libyan television. From some of his professors in the dilapidated, ideologically controlled education system, he knew he could get better schooling in America.
In August 2000, Ibrahim and his sister arrived in California for a five-week stay. They met their grandparents, their uncles and aunts and cousins, and many friends and colleagues who had helped in our 10-year effort to reunite my wife and her kids. We picnicked and hiked, saw Disneyland, Hollywood, and Six Flags. We visited Denver and the Rockies. We shopped. We took a leisurely drive from Spokane to Los Angeles, visiting Ibrahim’s birthplace and grandparents in Portland. We saw the giant redwoods, sea lions, the Golden Gate Bridge, Big Sur. We stopped at campuses in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara. Despite the language barrier, we talked endlessly of music, movies, food and politics. Ibrahim was eager to put Tripoli behind him. His sister hesitated.
Then came word from Libya that an examination date had been moved. To arrive in time to take it, they had to fly to Tripoli on September 6 instead of September 13, as previously planned. Between the time we watched from the gate as they walked down the runway to the British Airways jet and the time Ibrahim returned in November, our lives turned upside-down. And so they have remained.
But let Ibrahim tell you in words he wrote and I blogged March 2005 in My Stepson Has Some Words for Karen Hughes). It’s a piece he wrote for his English class. I apologize if you’ve read it before. (Every word is his, but I corrected some spelling and tense problems.)
The Man with No Country
Although I was born in the United States, I lived most of my life in Libya with my father. In Libya, people live under an oppressive government. One of the most widely known stories happened in the early 1980’s. Several university students were taken from their classrooms. They got hanged just tens of meters away from their classes in the campus square. The only thing they had done was not agreeing with the government’s point of view. The executions were shown on the government TV. The students did not have any trial. Their lives did not mean anything to the people who killed them.
After I left the U.S. at age 3, all of my connection with my mother was cut for several reasons. The political situation between Libya and the United States was one of them. I did not hear from my mother for 15 years. I did not even know what she looked like because I did not have a single picture of her. The day in 1998 that my sister and I saw my mother after so long was very emotional for all of us.
My mother was the only American who came to Tripoli with a group of mothers from the United Kingdom whose children were in Libya. The mothers had been unable to see their children because of the political problems between Libya and the West, and family difficulties with the fathers. An arrangement between a Libyan government-controlled organization and a social organization in the United Kingdom allowed the mothers to visit Libya to see their children for two weeks.
The next summer, my mother came by herself. I noticed that I was being followed everywhere I went by two men. Clearly, they were doing their job! I was afraid that one day I might disappear if I said or did something that the government and their not very secret police disliked. I felt their eyes were on me even when I slept.
The summer of 2000 I went with my sister to meet my mother and stepfather in Malta and to get my American passport. There is no American consulate or embassy in Libya. I took my passport back to Tripoli in my shoe. Luckily, I was not searched.
In the summer of 2001 I decided to go with my sister to visit the United States for the first time in 18 years. It was love, sort of, at first sight.
When I came here, I thought that this country was going to be my home. At the Los Angeles airport, I saw people in the line where the sign said “Americans check in here.” Those Americans were of African, Asian, South American and European descent. We were treated equally.
I stayed here for five weeks. I went to see my grandparents in Oregon, and my stepfather’s parents in Colorado. We had a great time at my uncle’s cabin near a beautiful lake in Washington. We went by car down the coast of Washington, Oregon and California. For the first time, I saw the Pacific Ocean and the redwoods. Everything was so beautiful. I saw that people spoke out against the government without fear of being followed or arrested. I felt the freedom in the air. I loved this country so much that I decided to live here permanently. I wanted to be an American, an American-Arab or Arab-American. I did not care which.
I told my mother that I wanted to live with her. She was thrilled to hear that.
I had to take my sister back to Libya, tell my father what I had decided and get my college transcripts. On my way back to Tripoli my mother and stepfather went with us all the way to the gate of the airplane to say goodbye. When I left on September 6th, I was treated like any American. I was so proud of my blue passport.
I remember the night I talked to my father about coming to live in the United States. I saw tears on his face. He told me, “Son, you are a man now and you can make your own decisions.” I remember that night very well because the day after would change my fate forever.
I was having lunch at my friend’s farm when his cousin came running to us. He told us that an airplane had crashed into a skyscraper in New York. My first reaction was that it must have been an accident. We went to the TV to see what was going on. I was standing not believing what I was looking at when we saw the other airplane crashing into the second tower. I felt like a bullet went through my heart. I could not stand on my feet. When I went back home, my father asked me whether I still wanted to go to the United States. I was determined to go. I was not afraid.
I came back to the United States two months after September the 11th. Everything was different, like day and night. The United States was at war. This war was with an enemy that the government had little knowledge about. I saw how the airport had transformed from almost a bus station with metal detectors to a chaos of lines and confusion. There were soldiers with guns, just like in Libya. I was asked many questions about my passport and my family and why I was in America. They asked me the same questions several times. All of a sudden, I had become a suspect simply because of the color of my skin, my name and my religion. My blue passport meant nothing to them. Instead of an Arab-American, I was now an Arab-Suspect.
I understood why this was happening. America was attacked. I thought America was right to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda. I thought that after the war Arabs and Muslims would not be treated differently. I was wrong.
I have traveled by airplane six times overseas and four times in the U.S. in the past three years. I notice that I am selected in their “random search” every single time before I get into an airplane. I have been “interviewed” several times, once for more than an hour. Not only me. My mother and my stepfather are selected every time they travel as well. Also every time before I leave the package claim area I get pulled aside for another full search. All that treatment because my name is [Ibrahim] and my religion is Islam. It is humiliating to have my freedom in the hands of people who don’t understand my religion or my culture.
The war on Iraq makes everything worse. What happens at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo shames me, but this does not seem to matter very much to other Americans. When I am in the airport now and they search me I wonder if they would torture me. President Bush talks about how bad Iran and Syria are, and I worry we will have more war against Muslims. I think Bush believes in a Crusade, not in freedom and democracy.
September the 11th robbed my right to be like any other American. September the 11th gave the excuse for the government to chew my freedom and my pride. Government policies let airport authorities digest my American citizenship into a name on the “must search list.” September the 11th made the United States act in ways that sometimes makes me ashamed of my blue passport.
I still love America. But I am thinking about moving to another country. I am now worried about my life here. I am worried about what will happen to us if another terror attack happens. Will the government put all of the Arabs or Muslims in camps like what they did to the Japanese in World War II?
When I talked with Ibrahim today, I wished I could have told him that the situation in America has changed since he wrote that essay 18 months ago. I wished I could have told him our leaders have wised up after Iraq. I wished I could have said that diplomacy has taken the front seat to military force. I wish I could have told him that Mister Bush will not attack Iran, or that if he does, the Democrats will make him wish he hadn’t. I wish I could have said that everything will be different if only the Republicans lose their House and Senate majorities in November. I wished I could have said that everything will be different if you just be patient.
But I couldn’t, could I?
So Ibrahim, who I have come to love as if he were my own child, will be heading off to England with his wife to finish his education. Not a bad thing, of itself, but done because America, land of the free, beacon of liberty, turned out not to be.
Ibrahim’s sister remains here for now. After hesitating for three years, she broke off her engagement and arrived 14 months ago to further her studies. She’s still in the honeymoon phase, in part for being released from the relentless pressure on her in Libya to get married, in part because her English has yet to become well-honed enough for her to gain a full understanding of what’s going on here.
When she does, will Osama bin Bush drive her out as well?