What We Talk About When We Talk About Terrorism | General News & Politics | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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What We Talk About When We Talk About Terrorism 

Last Updated: 08/13/2013 4:09 pm


Writing recently on the Vanity Fair website about the controversy surrounding what has become known as the Ground Zero Mosque, Amitava Kumar wondered if both sides in the affair had missed the point—both those who frame the development as an affront to hallowed ground and those who invoke the Constitutional right to freedom of religion to defend it. (For the record: The site of the proposed Park 51 Community Center—not a mosque—is three blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center, on a side street.) Kumar quotes Huxley—“The propagandist’s purpose, is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human”—and himself concludes: “The real subject of the furor we have been witnessing is not a building but rather the question of whether to grant [Muslims] a measure of ordinary humanity.”

In his latest book, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Book (Duke University Press, 2010), Kumar, a professor of English at Vassar, examines how this quality of “ordinary humanity” has been denied to Muslims and those ensnared, correctly or unjustly, in the War on Terror. At the heart of the book are two men, Hemant Lakhani and Matin Siraj, who were caught up in questionable sting operations and are now serving long prison sentences for terrorism-related crimes. In retelling their stories, Kumar paints a more complicated portrait of these men than the common stereotype of the Muslim radical allows for. Kumar suggests that if we question the application of the stereotype when confronted with prepackaged terrorism narratives, and allow for the ordinary humanity of those reduced to cultural ciphers, we, too, are helping to end the War on Terror. And doing so without torture, confinement, or intimidation—just imagination.



Where does the title of your book—A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb—come from?

An Egyptian poet named Edmond Jabés, fleeing Egypt, wrote, in the earlier part of the 20th century, a book called A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Book. That paradigm has now shifted. The foreigner is no longer fleeing with a tiny piece of sacred knowledge pressed to his heart. In the popular imagination, particularly in the West, the foreigner is now coming with some clandestine knowledge, knowledge which bears the seeds of destruction. So I wanted to comment on that, and, in some ways, question it.

You use a quote from Jabés as a jumping off point for your book. Jabés writes: “What is a foreigner? He is man who makes you think you are at home.” From the beginning of your book, you invoke this question: How do we relate the Other?
That is central to it: What is the impression we carry in our minds of the Other? And whether the Other always conforms to our deepest prejudices or not.

A good portion of the book is taken up with the stories of two men, now serving long prison sentences for terrorism-related crimes, Hemant Lakhani and Matin Siraj. Talk a bit about Lakhani’s story.
Lakhani was a failed used women’s clothing salesman. He was contacted by a man—Muhammad Habib Rehman—who was an FBI informant, originally from Pakistan. Rehman heard from an Indian gangster in Dubai of this fellow [Lakhani ] who was interested in doing arms trading. And that’s when Rehman contacted Lakhani and asked him what he wanted to sell. But Lakhani wasn’t really an arms trader. He had ambitions to be one, but he had ambitions about various things, including owning an airline. Lakhani offered his services, and everything Rehman asked for, Lakhani said, “I can get it, no problem.” At his trial, Lakhani’s lawyer said, “The only thing Rehman didn’t ask for was a submarine.” But everything else, Lakhani said yes. Hundreds of missiles? Yes! He promised everything.
Except, years passed and there was no missile. Until the FBI had the KGB sell one to Lakhani [on credit]. But Lakhani didn’t know how to get it here. So the FBI magically arranged for it to be brought here. That’s how Lakhani became an arms smuggler.

Lakhani is arrested at the meeting to sell Rehman—posing as a terrorist in this government sting operation—the missile, in a Newark hotel room.
Exactly right. The hotel room, incidentally, had been booked by Rehman. Lakhani arrived [from London] the previous night. Upon meeting Rehman, Lakhani expressed his amazement at seeing the missile. You can see it on YouTube actually. Minutes later, he is arrested, and now he will die in prison.

What is Matin Siraj’s story?
Siraj was a young Pakistani-American who was befriended by an NYPD informant—Osama Eldawoody—an unemployed Egyptian immigrant who claimed to be an out-of-work nuclear scientist suffering from cancer. Eldawoody was befriended/recruited by the NYPD, but not forcibly. The NYPD had stopped by his apartment to investigate some boxes that had been reported by neighbors, and he opened them to show that they were some cheap clothes that he had ordered online with the intention of reselling them. He didn’t seem offended that they would suspect a Muslim man, and he said, “I want to help you.” Here is a man looking at small deals selling clothes, so he gets a job in this way with the NYPD. They promise him a good income if he’ll be an informant.

So Eldawoody becomes a mentor to Siraj?
Yes. Eldawoody became a mentor/father figure to those who didn’t have fathers, and would preach to them about Islam and its teachings. Eldawoody preached to them that it was okay to kill the killers, and Americans were seen as killers.
Eldawoody showed Siraj a picture of a 13-year-old Iraqi girl who has been raped by a dog held by an American soldier, and this enraged him. These pictures you can find on the Net. They are used to stoke the passions of those who don’t seem purposeful in wanting to commit random destruction in this country. Frankly, I’m not sure of the veracity of the picture.
But Eldawoody, in this way, gives Siraj a reason, and then plants in his mind the idea of bombing a bridge. But Siraj resisted. He said, “Jihad? But planning is also jihad.” This is all laid out very clearly in the court transcript. Siraj was not interested in spilling any blood.
The informant pushes a bit more, and then Siraj says, “I’ll have to ask my mother.” Eldawoody nevertheless suggests they go check out the subway station. [Eldawoody and Siraj had also spoken of bombing the Herald Square subway station.] Eldawoody asks, “Can you do a drawing?” After Siraj draws a map of the subway station, showing where the garbage cans and benches are, they go back to the car and Siraj is arrested. And you know, 30-odd years in prison.

So the prosecution for both cases goes on fairly similar tracks?
Indeed, and so does their defense. The prosecution charges that you cannot wait for an act to be committed before you arrest the criminal. You have to act to preempt any such act and that these people, because of the things they said, were pretty clearly anti-American.

Lakhani and Siraj both admitted to, or were caught on tape, saying things like, “We’re going to fuck them.”
Yes, similar sentiments are espoused by each of them. I understand that you cannot wait till the bomb has been exploded to arrest the person. On the other hand, you also have the defense argument. This person might be willing to commit that crime, but was he able to commit that crime? Being such stunning failures, would Lakhani or Siraj have been able to actually organize and execute an attack? Would Lakhani, who had failed at everything he had tried in his life, and was extravagantly unsuccessful at each of his endeavors—would he have been able to acquire a missile and sell it to a terrorist? Would in fact a real terrorist have gone to a person like Lakhani to purchase something like this? I think the answer is quite persuasively no.
In the case of Siraj, a similar argument was used by the defense, and even his lawyer states, “This is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.” Would he have been able to, without this consistent prodding, this consistent pointing out, would he have been able to go and bomb a crowded train station? It’s very unlikely.

An NYPD detective you spoke to about Siraj’s alleged entrapment said, “If they had stopped the 9/11 hijackers, their lawyers would no doubt have made the same case.”
Yes, a wonderful point. I would like to accept it, and not something like a desperate defense lawyer who does not want to admit the very reasonable proposition that had one of the hijackers not died, someone might have just said that there was entrapment.
That is the quandary. That we must act and yet we must be aware that none of this might be well-founded. That reasonable assumption that there would be people who would have defended the hijackers, shouldn’t allow us to dismiss all legitimate questions of civil liberties. Yet again, I want to ask, as a writer: Are there complicating factors that we simply need to pay attention to, like, what does it mean to be human? Should we actually admit in the Other in any vestige of humanity? Are we all agreed, as a nation, that all Islamic people are bloody assassins? That they are here to wipe our civilization off the map?

How do we balance security issues versus the tactics that are used by law enforcement? And you see the consequences in certain ways when there are arrests made, like in the Lackawanna Six case. When the Six are arrested, then the entire surrounding Muslim community is put under surveillance. You’ve made the point that when this happens, the US loses its strongest ally.
After the Lackawanna Six were arrested, the uncle of one of them said, “We are living in a time of fire.” That feeling of being under siege is directly in opposition to that other reality—which is that someone in that particular community had actually been the individual who reported to government officials that the young men had gone over to an al Qaeda camp. In other words, the brutal and horrible suspicion of that community never for a moment admits that it was that community itself, through an act of self-surveillance, that offered up these men.
The use of these informants whose own nature and own motives, whose own histories are at least very suspect, to produce knowledge about communities that is dubious and in questionable circumstances, also casts this huge pall over the community. No one trusts anyone else anymore. It introduces suspicion and bad faith. And that means that you rely only on the worst people of a community to come forward and report to you; not its best angels. Reducing people either to criminals or to collaborators is no way which to heal the fabric of society that has been ripped.

You’re referring to 9/11.
Yes. And the healing that could have happened. It could have been expressed to the Muslim people: This is an injury to you and to us, you are a part of us. Instead, at every point, such as this mosque in New York City, to think that it is yet again an invasion or an attack. This is to constantly occupy the position, in bad faith, of a victim, when you’re actually, in some ways, the oppressor.

In your book, you present a sympathetic picture of these young men, the Lackawanna Six, who go to Pakistan to train with al Qaeda. They go, they train, and then most of them don’t like this whole idea of training with al Qaeda and return to Western New York. You’re also sympathetic toward John Walker Lindh’s father, a Catholic who allows his son to go learn about Islam in Yemen, after the kid watches Malcolm X and becomes intrigued by Islam. You state that these are acts of courage in a way, that these people are trying to learn about other cultures and it puts our ideas about multiculturalism to the test.
Yes. I want to insist on the ethics, if not the aesthetics, of the writer. I want to know for example, that the mattresses in the camps were uncomfortable. Al Qaeda camps sucked big time. For these basically Western kids, that is not what they had gone there for. And that interests me vastly. Not simply the issue of crime, but the issue of the little contradictions that complicate life and complicate crime and complicate the identities of these young men. They tried something and they found it utterly lacking, that it was not what they had wanted. And they came back to their own country, which is the US. They came back to Buffalo in all of its glory and rust.

You write in your book about the attacks in Mumbai of November 2008, when 10 men, members of the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, killed 173 people across the city. You telescope in on one of the young men as he is setting fire to an opulent room in the Taj Hotel while talking to his handler in Pakistan.
Yes, you can actually watch it on YouTube I think. But I also have the police transcript of the calls that were intercepted as the Mumbai attacks were going on, between the handlers in Pakistan and the terrorists as they went about their work in the hotel setting fires and killing people. You hear the handler’s voice urging the terrorists to go ahead and set fire to things, but for a moment the terrorist, whom I imagine to be from a small town or small village in Pakistan, is dazed. He is dazed by the opulence of his surroundings and he tries to tell the handler about the curtains, the huge windows; he’s looking at the tiles, the huge potted plants. Indian hotels can be dazzling. He recognizes a future that is not his. This place isn’t hell, it is actually paradise and he wants to acknowledge that before he sets fire to it. And the handler says, “Forget that, go on, set fire to it.” When the young man talks about the carpets, the handler says, “Bunch it together, set fire to it.” When the young man says that the computers are so big—which are actually plasma TVs on the walls—there’s a part of me that can see this. I came from a small town and then I came to this country, and I recognize the great charm, allure, and fascination of a place that offers those things that are denied to you.
These are the little moments to see the human in others, and the human in you, and that is what will rescue us. What will rescue us is precisely our own humanity and what is the denied humanity of the other. So that will be the connection. It is not by seeing the other as the brutal criminal and discovering inside of us the brutal torturer that is going to promise us salvation. That is only ushering us into a bigger and more savage war. And that cannot offer us any protection from anything, ever.

Your book is a mixture of reportage and cultural criticism. You discuss different artists whose work relates to the War on Terror in some way. Why didn’t you just write a book of straight reportage? Why did you feel the need to include the artists?
I’m very much interested in the artists because I’m interested in how someone responds imaginatively to a given situation. Every time I have been stopped by a policeman or a customs agent or a border patrolman, I feel that that person is lacking imagination. He or she is reducing me to something that I am not and that is the failure of the state: When it cuts you down to the size of an imagined terrorist.
And therefore I am interested in those readings of reality when someone, instead of reproducing the stereotypical response, actually goes elsewhere with something. And each of these artists whom I’ve included make clear how interpretation is always involved in constructing a picture of reality. That is a more complicated thing.

Give me an example. Can you talk about Hasan Elahi and his work, which deals with issues of self-surveillance?
Here is an artist, a professor of art, who is detained at the Detroit airport after he returns from an art camp in Senegal. Hasan’s name is on a list of suspects because he was reported to be an Arab by a couple whom he had rented space from. He is not Arab, he is Bangladeshi. He’s American, but his parents are from Bangladesh. The couple report that this “Arab” man has removed a box from his storage space, and therefore they are suspicious. And so Hasan is able to prove—over a series of interviews and polygraph tests that take months—that he was at his dentist, that he was talking to his students, that he was shopping. At those moments when he was suspected of terrorism, all that saves him is his Blackberry. He has taken the idea of surveillance as the FBI might practice it and imposed it upon himself. “I will surveil myself. I will carry out my own surveillance activities.” Every time he uses his credit card, that information goes up on his website www.trackingtransience.com.
His cell phone has a program hacked into it that records his movements. So right now if we were to open our laptops and look at his website, we would know where he is. Every time he uses a bathroom in a public place or goes up on a plane and orders airplane food, he always takes a picture of that and immediately uploads it to his site. In other words, he’s offering all the information he can about himself to the government. To me, this is a cunning, subversive exercise of the imagination that holds up a mirror to what the state is doing, and in a way overwhelms it. In fact, Hasan joked to me that if each one of us started surveilling ourselves, the US would be overwhelmed and need to outsource their own activity to other countries like India.

After 9/11, other countries began adopting the language of the War on Terror to their own ends.
Everyone wants a piece of the American Dream. But America also exports the American Dream, and the most recent American Dream is the War on Terror. It is the hidden, dark, repressed part of the American Dream. President Bush’s rhetoric on the War on Terror has been adopted by people in India, for instance, which has conducted its own draconian campaign against minorities, particularly Muslims from Kashmir. The rhetoric has been adopted by dictators, people like Robert Mugabe, who labeled all the jailed journalists who opposed his brutal regime unlawful combatants. So rulers all over the world have taken the stick to dissidents by saying: You’re either with us or against us. This is how people elsewhere have wanted to imitate America.

You say to that incident in the book, “the fundamental inequality of power is a wall that cannot be breached without violence.” Are you referring to the occupied rising up against the occupier?
Maybe I’ve not been very clear there. I’m trying to say terrible violence is inherent in that situation. So violence will be practiced. The wall will be there and if it is breached, that will also involve violence. And our insurgencies involve IEDs. So for people to think that the wall will be breached by the most benign, benevolent, anodyne applications of policies, that’s not going to happen. There has to be a recognition of the brutality of war right now and of the cost it is taking on the people who are occupied, but also on the occupier, so that we recognize the reality, which we have been screened from. And I’m saying partly, that this screening has been done by the War on Terror. There are these spectacular announcements of arrests so that we can feel free, but we don’t understand that the terrible violence in places like Iraq means that we will never be free from the consequences of such violence.
It is because of the utter inequity of the situation. You occupy two positions. As an occupier and the occupied. You are placed in two positions that are so at odds with each other, but also so indifferent in terms of access to power, that terrible acts will inevitably be committed by one party.

I want to bring up the comparison that you make between the Hollingsworth/Pickard case and the Siraj and Lakhani trials.
Pickard was an orthodontist who had an offshore account he was trying to sell in 1990—perfectly legal—when he was contacted by US agents who convinced him and his friend Hollingworth to launder $200,000 through the account. At their trial, defense lawyers maintained—as Lakhani’s and Siraj’s lawyers would later at their trials—that Pickard and Hollingsworth had been entrapped. And they were acquitted, unlike Lakhani and Siraj.
Hollingsworth is the classic entrapment case. I just wanted to point out that the needle of suspicion pointed to them because on that very day the customs agent had taken a seminar on money laundering and on his lunch break, he saw Pickard’s ad in USA Today. And this little detail interests me. It’s almost like this customs agent has been entrapped in a way because he’s entrapped by the suggestion so powerfully made by the state. He believes that someone will place an ad to sell a license because they are interested in money laundering. Why would they sell the license if it is profitable? Pickard and Hollingsworth were business partners who had failed at every bloody enterprise. It interested me that here were two men who had the character of failed men, like Lakhani and like Rehman, the man who entrapped him.
I presented the Hollingsworth case because of the clear contrast between that time and this time. The logic of the defense against entrapment—that you had been incited to perform a crime—worked in the pre-9/11 period. But post-9/11, incitement is all you have if you want to arrest someone. That is how the logic of the state works. You can only provoke someone to say, “Yes, I’m going to bomb this country.”

What do you mean you can only provoke them?

The state believes that the only way to catch criminals is by getting evidence on tape—evidence of a foreigner or minority saying that they will go and blow up a plane or an airport or building.

Well, the other way to catch them would be to wait for them to blow up a building.
Although that clearly is not a good policy, right?

Where do we draw the line then?
Here’s the difference: The state is willing to draw a line deeply and implacably, when it comes to someone who fits the profile of Lakhani or Siraj. And I’m saying that line is not clear, and therefore we should not act on that line as if it has been drawn indelibly and forever. Because there is a lot of blurring, and we, as humane and vigilant citizens, need to guard the blurriness of that line.

Earlier, you mentioned complicating factors. For instance, the Lackawanna Six did, in fact, go to an al Qaeda training camp. And yet their testimony suggests that they returned to the US disillusioned with radical Islam. This is not a clear-cut situation of homegrown radicals who are plotting against the US. That being said, I’m not sure the US, or any other state, deals effectively with these types of complications. States tend to view security issues in a black-and-white manner.
But that doesn’t mean that nonstate actors—people like you and me—should give up our responsibility. It also doesn’t mean that we should allow the widespread dissemination of erroneous facts in the public space. One of them being an example that I liked in the work of the artist Martha Rosler, referencing the case of the trapped child and the ticking time bomb. When people talk about the ticking time bomb, they say, “Is it not logical to torture a terrorist who in 24 hours is going to kill your own child?” Well, when was the last time that happened? Maybe on “24” it happened, but when did torture prevent the explosion of a ticking time bomb in real life? When, when, when? So that is what I’m trying to argue. That the state does not admit this question. The state is actually uncomplicated, but the state is only uncomplicated in the way that error is uncomplicated.

click to enlarge Muslims release pigeons symbolising peace during a rally in the Indian city of Ahmedabad following the Mumbai attacks November 29, 2008.
  • Muslims release pigeons symbolising peace during a rally in the Indian city of Ahmedabad following the Mumbai attacks November 29, 2008.
click to enlarge Hemant Lakhani is driven by FBI agents into the Federal Courthouse in Newark, New Jersey on August 13, 2003. lakhani was convicted of providing material support to terrorists and illegal weapons dealing after being ensnared in a government sting operation, and is serving a 30-year prison sentence.
  • Hemant Lakhani is driven by FBI agents into the Federal Courthouse in Newark, New Jersey on August 13, 2003. lakhani was convicted of providing material support to terrorists and illegal weapons dealing after being ensnared in a government sting operation, and is serving a 30-year prison sentence.
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