Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Terrifying incompetence: An American returning from the Islamic world receives a troubling welcome home


Arriving at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport from Dubai recently, I was stopped at customs by an officer from the Department of Homeland Security and directed to a drab backroom filled with Arabs, South Asians and Africans. I wasn't surprised, really, having just spent six months working and traveling in the Islamic world — Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Pakistan. If ever there was a DHS red-flag candidate, I was it, and I assumed this was just protocol.

"Why did you infringe on the Boston Celtics' copyright in Boston in 2003?" asked my case officer, Malik — ironically a Pakistani — from behind his high desk.

Uh, because I used to sell T-shirts outside sporting events, I said, wondering what this had to do with national security.

"You've got a long record," he said. Sure, for peddling "Yankees Suck" T-shirts — sans permit, which isn't a crime but a code violation — not for promoting "Bin Laden Rulz!" DVDs or the "Idiot's Guide to Suicide Bombing."

"You know, we could have you sent up to Boston for the unresolved T-shirt infractions," Malik said. "But what we're holding you for is an NYPD bench warrant from 2004. You were in a fight with a parking attendant, found not guilty and then missed a court date." All true. But how and why does Homeland Security share the NYPD's jurisdiction in cases unrelated to counterterrorism? A fight over a parking space hardly counts as terrorism.

"We're calling NYPD to come to pick you up," Malik told me, without asking a single question about Pakistan, terrorism, Islam or madrasas.


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