Do They Look Like Me?

You might have heard about the terror induced by 14 Syrian musicians on a Northwestern flight.

There is no doubt that something out of the ordinary happened on Northwest Airlines Flight 327 from Detroit to Los Angeles on June 29. The plane was met at the airport by squads of federal agents and police responding to radio messages from the pilots about concerns that 14 Middle Eastern male passengers had spent the four-hour flight acting suspiciously.

But was the episode a dry run for a terrorist attack, as is now being widely suggested on the Internet and on talk radio, or an aborted terrorist attack? Or was it an innocent sequence of events that some passengers, overcome by anxiety and perhaps ethnic stereotyping, misinterpreted as a plot to blow up their plane?

It started with a 3,300-word story by Annie Jacobsen who was on the flight. Her narrative reads like one right out of a creative writing class. I agree with Donald Sensing that “Annie’s story is simply a scarily well-written shaggy-dog story.” Lots of bloggers have commented on the article, some skeptical while others feel scared or worse.

Aziz Poonawalla writes about the suspicious things he has done on an airplane. I fly quite frequently, but haven’t noticed anyone staring at me. However, I usually read a book at the gate and in the plane. I have been asked a couple of times where I am from after someone sitting next to me heard me speaking in Urdu to Amber on the cellphone. Depending on my mood and sunspots, I give different answers to that question.

This incident reminded me of the three medical students who were supposedly heard making terrorist plans in a restaurant in Georgia about two years ago.

The scare began when Eunice Stone said she overheard the three Muslim men at a Shoney’s restaurant Thursday morning making suspicious comments. At one point, Stone said the bearded man said if Americans “were sad on 9/11, wait until 9/13.”

Stone said she heard one of the men ask “Do you think we have enough to bring it down?” Another one of the men replied, “If we don’t have enough to bring it down, I have contacts and we can get enough to bring it down.”

“To me, that meant they were planning to blow up something,” she said.

She called authorities, who in turn issued the bulletin for authorities to be on the lookout for the vehicles. The men were pulled over at 1 a.m. Friday on Alligator Alley, after one of the cars allegedly went through a toll booth without paying.

In the end, it turned out the guys were innocent. It never was clear who was speaking the truth, the three Muslims or Ms. Stone, but PhotoDude had his preferences:

In the end, I, a 44 year old who’s lived in Georgia for 24 years, am left to believe people I don’t know: either a 44 year old woman from Georgia and her son, or these three men. Now, I don’t know Eunice Stone, but after 24 years in this state, I know Eunice Stone’s type.

[…]I’m very thankful the day ended with no one injured, and no one even in jail. But if I have to believe one version or another of the story, I think you know which one I choose.

I guess I can play that game as well. I also don’t know any of the people involved. But having lived in Georgia for almost 7 years and visited north Georgia quite a lot, I have heard stories about the small-town people there being nice and polite and sometimes suspicious of strangers, especially those who look different. This was definitely the case before September 2001 and I doubt it has changed now. On the other hand, I don’t know the Muslim medical students but two of them seem to be Pakistani-Americans and I know the type.

In the end, no one was injured, as PhotoDude noted, and no one was jailed, but the students lost their medical internship in Florida because the hospital received numerous threats (by anti-Muslim bigots, I assume).

Where am I going with this? Obviously, I am not blogging to criticize a 2-year-old post by PhotoDude. I was reminded of this somewhat “tribal” behavior that we are all guilty of at times because of an excellent blog post by Katherine. She starts out with the September 11 terrorist attacks.

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..

Her whole post is worth reading. Her point is that most of us cannot empathize with the victims of torture at Abu Ghraib or the immigrants who were abused in detention immediately after September 11 or the 14 Syrians who were most likely innocent musicians or the three medical students or Pakistani-American Ansar Mahmood.

If Mahmood had not decided to pose for a souvenir snapshot taken by a co-worker on a sparkling fall day in October 2001, he might still be in Hudson, dutifully spending money to his family in Pakistan. But the scenic setting that Mahmood chose for this photo was a water-treatment plant with the Catskill Mountains in the background. Amid the post-9/11 hysteria, employees of the plant alerted police that a possible terrorist was photographing this vulnerable target.

[…]Because he held a green card and the initial suspicions that he wanted to poison the water supply were so exaggerated, Mahmood won release within a week. But a search of his apartment led to the discovery that Mahmood had co-signed a lease for a Pakistani couple who were in the country illegally. In an interview with The New York Times, Mahmood later explained that he had not inquired about the couple’s immigration status. “They never ask me if I have a green card, and I cannot ask them either.”

Reflecting the get-tough attitudes of the months after 9/11, federal officials charged Mahmood with the felony offense of “harboring aliens.” On the advice of his court-appointed lawyer, Mahmood pleaded guilty in federal court in January 2002, accepting a lenient sentence of probation and time served.

Our story might have ended there with a sadder-but-wiser Mahmood learning that he should not be so eager to do favors for his fellow Pakistanis. But the revised 1996 immigration law eliminated discretion in a situation like Mahmood’s. As soon as he uttered the word “guilty,” Mahmood was subject to deportation. He was moved to the Batavia detention facility, as his appeals process worked its way through the courts.

After more than two years in prison, Mahmood lost his last legal gambit Tuesday [June 29, 2004].

A lot of photogrophers and other civil libertarians have talked about the restrictions put on photography in recent times, but most Americans won’t have the misfortune of being an immigrant from Pakistan and hence have all their life scrutinized because they took a photograph. In that scrutiny, law enforcement might find a crime, a technical violation of immigration law or even some blunders by immigration authorities which affected the immigrant’s status.

Or consider the case of Ian Spiers whose tale of harassment because of photography is detailed here.

There are lots of other examples, like Maher Arar, a Syrian Canadian who was sent to Syria by US authorities to be tortured and interrogated.

I am a political liberal and a secular Muslim. I detest the terrorists and thugs who kill in the name of my religion. I am dismayed at the lack of democracy and civil liberties in Pakistan. However, when I read about incidents like the ones described in this post, I remember that like Ansar, I am a Pakistani immigrant to the US; like the Syrians on the Northwestern flight, my native language is written in the Arabic scrript; and so on. For me, unfortunately, these things are not beyond imagination. I can easily think of myself in their shoes and the feeling I get is scary. At a rational level, I understand that the US is a better place in terms of liberty than most other countries and that the chances of anything bad happening to me or my family are quite minute. I just hope that we get over these “tribal” attitudes and get to the task at hand: getting rid of terorrism and spreading democracy and human rights around the world.

UPDATE: Unmedia has an update of the Jacobsen and Syrians in flight story.

UPDATE II: Time has an interview with a Federal Air Marshall on the plane.

USCIS Efficiency

It took a month to happen for Amber. That was two years ago. I had to wait 2 years and 2 months for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to do what was just a printing job. During those two years, I had to visit the INS/USCIS 5 times, instead of the one visit it should have required. I had to get up really early in the morning and wait in line all day long. Add all the stress and worry and the phone calls I had to make to the USCIS and it becomes quite a lot.

The most frustrating part is that this was not about adjudication of an immigration petition. It was a simple printing job. At first, I thought I was special, that I was the only one in this situation. But then everywhere I looked, in internet forums and at USCIS offices, I saw people in the same predicament as me.

USCIS officers knew for 1.5 years that there was a problem on their end. But no one fixed it until one officer decided to do something 2 months ago. Their customer service is so bad that it always seemed like they were blaming me for the blunder. They never seemed to believe me until I showed them all the paperwork. Not once did anyone say “I am sorry, our department messed up.”

Miscellaneous

I have read a number of books in the past month or so and owe you guys about five reviews. Hopefully, I’ll get to them in the next couple of weeks.

Asad has informed me that he has created a phonetic Urdu keyboard layout for Unipad. He also pointed me to the Yahoo! mailing list for Urdu computing. These are useful resources to add to the list I compiled in a previous post.

Hijabman recommends the book Muslims in the U.S: The State of Research by Karen Leonard according to which most Muslims in the US are ‘invisible’ Muslims, i.e. they don’t attend any mosque.

According to Muslim Wakeup, “less than 7 percent of American Muslims attend mosque regularly (compared with 38 percent of Americans who attend church weekly).” In the comments, the author Ahmed Nassef explains where this 7% figure comes from.

The 7% figure for regular mosque attendance comes from the 2000 national mosque study co-sponsored by ISNA and CAIR. The study, which depends only on information from mosque officials, points to 400,000 regular mosque attendees out of an estimated population of 6 million Muslims in the US.

Even if there are only 3 million Muslims in the US, the percentage of regular mosque attendees is still much less than that of church attendees.

Via Perverse Access Memory comes the news that processing times for most immigration documents have increased substantially.

Processing times —- for everything from renewing an annual work permit to securing permanent legal residency —- have as much as quadrupled over the last 18 months, despite the Bush administration’s pledge to cut waiting times in half. The wait to replace a lost green card, for instance, has grown to 19 months from four. And the kind of paperwork sought by Ms. Barschdorff —- a document allowing her to re-enter the country after a brief trip —- now takes seven months instead of two.

As a consequence, and despite an infusion of $160 million earmarked for cutting the backlog, the number of pending applications has risen by nearly 60 percent over the last three years, to 6.2 million, according to a recent congressional report. The root cause, officials say, is the post-9/11 reassignment of 1,000 agents who used to issue documents and now do extensive security checks of every applicant instead.

The fallout ranges from minor inconveniences to wrenching dilemmas.

Mexican Immigration Threat

Samuel Huntington has written an article about the threat of Mexican immigration to the US. His article is full of assumptions, half-truths and ignoring data that doesn’t fit his thesis. In some ways, it is worse than his Clash of Civilizations idea some years ago.

I can’t be bothered by this so-called “threat.” As someone who was not born in the US, I have no problems with immigrants arriving in the US. As a global nomad who has not yet decided where to settle, I don’t have much sympathy for nationalists and patriots. Nativist feeling only gets my contempt. As for language, I am not a good learner of language and have been found bitching a few times about Spanish-only signs in some areas, but then English is not my first langauge and the world will not fall apart if most people spoke Spanish in the US. Like I learned English as a kid, my children could learn Spanish.

The best critique of Huntington I have seen is by a multipart one by Scott Martens on his blog Pedantry. Daniel Drezner has some good points as well.

Buscaraons relates bilinguilism, colonialism, Mexican immigration and insecurity.

Russell Arben Fox and Haroon Mughal are somewhat sympathetic to Huntington probably because of their conception of language and culture.

Finger Printing Visitors

I don’t have time for a real post, but wanted to note that the US-VISIT program has started.

Foreigners arriving at U.S. airports were photographed and had their fingerprints scanned Monday in the start of a government effort to use some of the latest surveillance technology to keep terrorists out of the country.

The program allows Customs officials to check passengers instantly against terrorist watch lists and a national criminal database.

The goal is to “make sure our borders are open to visitors but closed to terrorists,” Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said.

[…] Under the new rules, travelers press their index fingers onto an inkless scanner and then have their photograph taken as they make their way through customs.

The security checks target foreigners entering the 115 U.S. airports that handle international flights, as well as 14 major seaports. The only exceptions will be visitors from 27 countries —- mostly European nations —- whose citizens are allowed to come to the United States for up to 90 days without visas.

Also exempted will be most Canadians, because they usually are not required to get visas, and Mexicans who are coming into the country for a short time and not venturing far from the border.

The program, called US-VISIT, or U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, is expected to check up to 24 million foreigners each year, though some will be repeat visitors.

[…] In a pilot program at Hartsfield-Jackson that preceded Monday’s nationwide implementation, authorities turned up 21 people on the FBI (news – web sites)’s criminal watch list for such crimes as drug offenses, rape and visa fraud, Ridge said.

Homeland Security spokesman Bill Strassberger said that once screeners become proficient, the extra security will take 10 to 15 seconds per person.

[…] Under the program, photographs go into a law-enforcement database that eventually will allow users to pull up photos of visa holders and make sure they match the person who is seeking to enter the country. The travel data is supposed to be securely stored and made available only to authorized officials on a need-to-know basis.

Foreigners also will be checked as they leave the country as an extra security measure and to ensure they have not overstayed their visa or violated other restrictions.

A similar program is to be installed at 50 land border crossings by the end of next year.

[…] In Brazil, meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry started fingerprinting and photographing arriving Americans last week in retaliation. U.S. citizens waited for hours Monday to be photographed and fingerprinted at Rio’s international airport.

I’ll copy and paste my comment on this news at the Talking Dog.

While there is no civil liberties issue in denying entry to non-citizens or even finger-printing or photographing them, I think we haven’t given this whole thing as much thought as it requires.

This is part of the revolution in information systems and computing. We can now store a digital photo and fingerprints of most visitors to the US in a database along with info about their travels to the US. Similar or other data can be collected about all kinds of people whether visitors, permanent residents or citizens. As an aside, every applicant for permanent residency submits photos and digital fingerprints during the approval process nowadays.

The question is when we should collect such data; what data should be linked together; and what should be the limitations on such data. For example, the purpose of US-VISIT is national security but what should happen when a felon is found through this program?

Also, around 25 million people every year will be going through this process. A lot of these will be repeat visitors, but still we are collecting lots of info about a large number of foreigners. Where are we going with this?

Consider this: Will you be willing to submit your digital fingerprints and photo when visiting another country? For example, France? Israel? UK? Pakistan? India? China? Russia?

I think you get my point.

I am not a libertarian. So I don’t have any philosophical objection to such things. I think it might be a good idea for every country to fingerprint and photograph all visitors to check with terrorist etc. databases. But I would prefer that if there is no match, most of this info should be destroyed rather than kept in a database because I have pragmatic concerns about its use.

Also, take a look at the privacy policy for this program at the Department of Homeland Security website.

Regularizing Immigration

Via Mark Kleiman and Perverse Access Memory comes this statement from Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has called for millions of illegal immigrants in the United States to be given some sort of legal status short of citizenship, a proposal suggesting that the Bush administration might revive an ambitious legalization plan that was sidetracked after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In comments on Tuesday at a town hall meeting in Miami, Mr. Ridge said, “The bottom line is, as a country, we have to come to grips with the presence of 8 to 12 million illegals, afford them some kind of legal status some way.”

[… He] said the government might consider legalizing the status of illegal immigrants already in the country on a one-time basis.

[…] Mr. Ridge’s spokesman, said, “The secretary acknowledges that we have several million people here illegally, and he understands that for homeland security reasons, at some point in time, there needs to be a better way to identify those who may be a threat to our country.”

[… Mr. Ridge] insisted, however, that the protections would not included citizenship.

I am glad someone has finally noticed our big illegal immigration problem. We have to realize that our immigration system needs a lot of fixing. It is clear that having 8-12 million illegal immigrants is a problem. They form about 3-4% of the US population. We have to do something about it for humanitarian, economic and national security reasons.

I don’t think there is the political will to actually find and deport all those illegal immigrants. Therefore, we have to think of alternate arrangements. Giving them some sort of legal status qualifies as a good idea. I am however conflicted on this since it does sort of reward illegal behavior and it would be bad if we got into this cycle where there was some sort of amnesty for illegal immigrants every few years. But a one time measure along with other measures to discourage illegal immigration (border control, punishing businesses who hire illegals, etc.) would work. As Mark Kleiman points out, employer sanctions might be the best route for enforcement.

Mark Kleiman also points to a news item which says that the Bush administration is thinking of an agricultural workers legalization programme, a la Reagan in 1986.

What I am Reading

I am busy, so no regular posts today. However, here is some stuff I am reading:

  • A New York Times article about the Lackawanna Six, the Yemeni-Americans in Buffalo who trained at an Al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.
  • An interesting article about the history of the oath of allegiance that naturalized citizens have to take.
  • Patrick Belton has written before on his blog about the Arab/Muslim-American community in Dearborn, Michigan (see my post about it). He now has published an article about it and plans to turn it into a book.
  • Juan Cole, a Professor of History, is an expert on the Middle East. He has an article in the Boston Review about the recent history of Iraqi Shiites. It’s a must-read for everyone. Juan’s blog is also full of great content and I would read it regularly if the formatting was somewhat better.