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Skepticism, Please

Jun
12
2005

For much of the last week, my local newspaper – sigh – the San Francisco Chronicle, has been dominated by headlines about the arrests of some local men accused of – but not charged with — having ties to terrorist organizations.
Not charged, just “said to have.” That’s the important part. And it makes your heart sink just reading the stories and watching the coverage particularly in this community where it’s virtually impossible to go for more than a day without meeting someone who was not born in this country. More than almost any other part of America, Northern California is filled with immigrants at all social and economic levels who – in this day of jet travel and internet-based instant communication – no longer forsake their native lands when they come here. For better or worse, and if you’re a Muslim it probably seems like worse, these immigrants integrate their two worlds.
And that, it seems, is at the root of the charges lodged against Mohammad Adil Khan, his son, Muhammad Hassan Adil and Shabbir Ahmed, all Pakistani immigrants. Two other men, Hamid Hayatt and his father, Umer, both U.S. citizens have also been arrested. The men are all residents of Lodi, a rural farming town in the northern part of the San Francisco bay area where the landscape is very much like that of Northern India: flat, with rolling tracts of farmland. It’s famous for being part of a John Fogerty lyric and, back when it was home to Italian immigrants, it was where the Mondavi family wine empire began.


The three Pakistanis are charged with violating immigration laws having to do with trips back and forth from their native country. The Hayats are charged with lying to the FBI. From reading The Chron, it’s not clear who went where when or why because the FBI isn’t giving any more details. But they are saying that the younger Hayat, 22, has told investigators that he received terrorist training at a camp near Rawalpindi. He’s also, apparently, mentioned the name of a well-know al Queda, Maulana Fazlur Rehman — or maybe that’s Fazlur Rahman Khalil — described by the paper as “one of the three signatories of Osama bin Laden’s ‘fatwa calling for a jihad ..against Jews and crusaders and the United States,” in 1998.
Now, my Pakistani geography isn’t great. But I do know that Rawalpindi’s most famous resident is Pakistani President Parvez Musharraf and I know there have been repeated attempts to assinate him in the past year. So it seems to me that Rawalpindi is probably a pretty safe place. And my knowledge of Muslim culture isn’t that great either. But I do know one thing: Americans have a very hard time with the three-phrase names that many Middle Eastern natives carry. Mistaken identity is a constant and irritating theme in how this country’s law enforcement is executed. It’s getting embarrassing. There’s something else: scared 22-year-olds will often say and do odd things to get out – or in – trouble. Talk that the older Hayat wore a recording device during conversations with his Pakistani friends after his son was arrested is even more troublesome.
The skepticism with which a series of terrorism experts have greeted these arrests outside the Bay Area has been striking, too. Having a terrorist training camp outside Rawalpindi is a bit like having a terrorist training cell outside of Arlington, Va., where the U.S. Pentagon is located, one expert told Keith Olberman on Thursday. That this story broke on the same day that details about the many, many ways in which the FBI screwed up before 9/11 didn’t bolster anyone’s confidence.
Of course, those observation didn’t make it into The Chron’s Friday story which bore a headline that could be easily translated as “Really Nice Suburban Neighborhoods Could Be Home to Evil-Doers.” The story about the FBI’s missteps was played inside the paper. The paper waited until Saturday to deliver any real skepticism. Sunday’s coverage was even more forceful. There is. it seems, much unanswered about these arrests and the FBI’s assumptions.

Anita Weiss, a University of Oregon professor who has done extensive research on Muslim movements in Pakistan, also questioned the details in an FBI affidavit about the alleged activities of Hamid Hayat, the Lodi man at the center of a widening federal investigation.
“There are mosques with fiery preachers … but there is no way there is a terrorist training camp near Rawalpindi,” said Weiss, who was in Pakistan on Sept. 11, 2001, and as recently as last October.
In an interview with The Chronicle, Weiss noted that Rawalpindi is just outside Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, and “in the backyard of the Pakistani security forces.”

There are a couple of things missing in these stories. The irritating part is that no one is really doing anything wrong. But they’re not doing anything right, either.
Let’s get the bad journalism out of the way first: In its initial stories, The Chron relied on the word of law enforcement as it summed up – with little skepticism – the statements made by the FBI. Those statements are protected and the paper is just doing what they have always done in taking the FBI at its word. The arrested men can not sue for libel and hope to win as long as the paper issues official pronouncements from law enforcement. This sort of thing happens all the time. It’s business as usual. When reporters are writing about their own culture and their own communities, it’s not usually harmful because people are speaking a common language, in all respects. The same is true, sadly, of the FBI’s decision to arrest these men. There may well be reason to hold them – although it seems unlikely at this point – but if the bureau doesn’t, well, we have 9/11 to thank for the rest of that thought.
But when reporters and law enforcement – here and across the country – approach non-American immigrant communities, these business-as-usual constructs shift a bit. The cultural differences can be vast, assumptions invalid, misunderstandings common. It may sound suspicious to go back and forth to Pakistan, to raise money for a rabble-rousing Muslim sect or to screw up immigration documents and fail to understand the questions you’re asked when you’re pulled off the plane. But all of these things may be perfectly innocent seen through the proper cultural lens: A trip home to see relatives, find a wife and a bit of carelessness about travel documents. I am always wary of immigration violations because I suspect that very few Americans would have patience to maneuver through our immigration bureaucracy. It is a nightmare that’s only gotten worse since 9/11.
Which gets back to a new, difficult to understand, reality of the modern age. Immigrants no longer forsake their native lands and, as a result they do not need to abandon their culture as quickly as they might have done in a slower-paced time. The experience of California’s Mexican immigrants – going back and forth for extended stays in both countries, between generations, between jobs, between family events like weddings and deaths – is becoming more common for peoples in nations once considered far out of reach of easy travel. Coming to grips with this in a new age of terror is, for many people, as frightening and surprising as the threat of terrorism itself.
Now, I’m prepared to believe there are people out there up to no good. That’s why we need immigration review and a CIA and an FBI. Being a California resident, I am prepared – or like to think I’m prepared for — the day that giant tectonic plates will shift and my china will fall off the shelves. But just as I don’t lie awake at night waiting for the earth to shift, I’m not prepared to believe that a 22-year-old who may or may not be correct about the names of his father’s friends, who seems to have gone back to his native land for fairly prosaic reasons, and who is being held on some nebulous charge that I’m not sure I even understand, is the heartbeat of a local, Lodi, CA-based terror cell. And neither should the FBI or, perhaps more importantly, The Chron.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 3:41 PM | Permalink

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