Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Iman's Curse

Law is not always justice

When I was 8 years old, walking down the right hand side of the hallway at Abington Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, I was smiling, talking to a friend when  a hall patrol, wearing his white belt with its shiny badge, pulled me over and said, "You've had 3 warnings. You have to go to Patrol Court tomorrow."  

I protested I had never had a warning, ever, to no avail. The patrol insisted I had and there was no arguing. What the charge was, I had no idea and neither did he. It could have been anything. Walking down the left side of the hallway. Murder. Anything.

Patrol Court was a fearsome place. There were stories that after brief trials the principal spanked kids in front of everyone and kids cried just knowing they were being swept up into that maelstrom.  I had had experience defending myself in our family courts at home, for various infractions, like leaving the milk out but I had faith in the justice of family court, even if it was my father, an implacable judge, who was sitting in judgment. I had no such faith in patrol court.

It was Mid-May and there were only six weeks left in the school year before summer vacation and that summer I would be moving across the Potomac to Maryland. So I was determined to hide from that patrol. I would wait until the patrols left their posts before running into my school room, and got socked with multiple "tardy" notices. My mother was notified and asked me why I was late. I walked to school every morning and had for three years and never been late before. I just shrugged. I had to give up my cherished softball team because the patrol played on another team and I'd be sure to be spotted. 

It never occurred to me to tell my parents. Why, I cannot say.

Weeks of hiding in the shadows taught me what it must be like for anyone who fears the authorities. I could  identify with those old movies about Jews hiding from the Nazis, creeping along streets, trying to stay out of sight. 

Our move that August to Maryland was a huge relief. I had successfully avoided capture and now was carried to the promised land, for a new start, free from patrols, in Maryland. 

In one of those odd random scenes which happen in life, later that summer my brother remarked, "You know, when you smile, you look exactly like Danny Sullivan." Danny Sullivan was a well known bad actor at Abington Elementary School, always in trouble, defiant, a kid who likely spent a lot of time in Patrol Court. So that was it: a case of mistaken identification. The cop on the beat got it wrong. 

So it was with a special sympathy I read Evan Osnos's New Yorker article(Sept 21) about the Khan family which had two sons and the father arrested by the FBI and accused of materially supporting terrorism, specifically the Taliban in Pakistan, by sending money. 

There were many things which made my blood boil in this piece:  the punishment of the defendants which began before any trial:  Repeated strip searches, including rectal exams, solitary confinement;  publicity from the FBI which labeled them terrorists intent on jihad, so that when the two accused sons were ultimately freed for lack of evidence, they found notes on their cars and homes "No jihad in our neighborhood," and jobs and homes and cars were lost.  It all reminded me of a toned down version of Abu Garaib prison in Iraq played out in Florida.

American confronts Islam

Give the FBI, the police, any school yard bully a badge and put him in a position where he can hurt someone with no risk of being hurt himself and you've got the essence of governmental terrorism.

Early in the article Osnos mentions the way the father, who was ultimately sentenced to prison until he is 98 years old, would erupt over minor transgressions with major invective: A child would not stop crying--"May God just make her dead"--his son left his daughter in law at home to cook--"May he be run over by a truck."  This sort of thing is, apparently, a hyperbole not uncommon in the Pashtun culture:  "May you be destroyed beyond recognition into the abyss of oblivion."  These are all the powerless have for a venting.  When it is first mentioned, you wonder why but as the trial progresses you see this mode of hyperbolic expression proves to be the father's undoing. Put that Pashtun habit in front of a jury of Americans and you've got a frothing, wild eyed terrorist intent of blowing up schools for girls.

So when, at his trial, the father's invective is read to the jury it sounds as if he really has it in for the Pakistani government and, by implication, that he really does support the Taliban. Of course, the government prosecutors do not present the invective the father levels against the Taliban--that would have hurt their own case.

The really disturbing thing about the story, beyond the destruction of a family by government bureaucrats who go home at night to dinner with their own families feeling smug and righteous, is the nature of the accusation. Nobody ever even tried to prove the Khan sons or father actually ever did anything violent or did anything more than express anger or send money to relatives. The offense was in having bad ideas and expressing them offensively. 

The father had cursed the Pakistani government for killing the wrong people in an incompetent effort to kill the Taliban.  The Pakistani soldiers were incapable of shooting Taliban, so they just shot the little people who got in their way. That provoked the father: "May Allah destroy them...[and] hit them with his shells of wrath."

Oh, that is certainly worth 25 years without parole. 

The government never showed any of the hundreds of dollars the father sent to relatives ever reached the Taliban.  A juror later told Osnos he had voted to convict because the defense "Couldn't prove that he didn't do it."  

Now there is a concept for you.  You are not presumed innocent; you are presumed guilty unless you can prove you didn't do it.

So, maybe, as an 8 year old, I was on to something, when it came to Patrol Court and the justice I could expect from my fellow citizens. In my case, I was able to escape across the river to the liberty of Maryland. 

In the case of the Khan family, they escaped the chaos of Pakistan to America, but as one son says, "You advertise it to the whole world: Hey, we're the best country, we're the best nation, we're the best justice system. If you think about it, the whole purpose of this country was to protect people like us."


  1. Mad Dog,
    At least your time as an 8 year old on the lam gave you insight into the experience of the wrongfully accused. This was an infuriating story in so many ways, not the least of which was the uncomfortable feeling that even if the general public were more aware of these abuses there still wouldn't be a loud outcry to stop them. Apparently in the "war" against terrorism the ends continue to justify the means and it doesn't matter if this war is waged against innocent citizens. The US government, led by the FBI, destroyed the lives of this family and where is the restitution? In the case of the sons, their reputations and careers suffered irreparable damage and they were financially ruined. The government is found in the wrong, it moves on easily and the sons are expected to do the same even though the lives they carved out for themselves will never be the same. Neither rails against the government, probably out of fear, but it's hard to imagine there wasn't a severe psychological and emotional toll. What does months in solitary confinement do to a person-in this instance 9 months for one brother and 16 months for the other-all before a trial while they are, supposedly, presumed innocent. Silly me, I had always thought solitary was a punishment used in prisons to keep the convicted in line. But as the Khan case, Gitmo, and Abu Ghraib demonstrate, legal rights, as well as human rights, get tossed when it comes to our big war against terrorism..

    For all the manpower and government resources poured into the Khan case what did it net-ruined lives for the sons and a lengthy prison sentence for their elderly half blind father. What exactly the father was guilty of was never made clear in the story and most likely never made clear at trial. He sent money back to the homeland like immigrants have done for centuries and he railed against the powers that be in a vernacular common to where he was raised. Perhaps some of the money did end up in the wrong hands, but that was never proved. It seemed his intent was to help his besieged family in a war zone, as well as the school that he founded. When it comes to dangerous, blood thirsty terrorists bent on death and destruction, Hafiz Khan doesn't seem like much of a catch. But therein lies part of the problem-it doesn't seem the FBI and the government care about the quality of the catch, so long as there is a catch to justify their work.. a "build it and they will come" type of mentality..Look for terrorists and lo and behold you find some..maybe..

    1. Maud,

      Yes, the "war" should be in quotation marks.
      Of course, this is another case of using language to shape perception.

      One thing you can say for Hitler and Tojo is they were visible and they planted flags and the only problem was scaling up to get more firepower launched against them than they could launch against us.

      The tactics to fight "asymmetric" conflicts have to do with uncovering deception and intent, which has always been a problem for a defense establishment built to fight the previous war.
      Essentially, the fight against terrorism is a police action, and as you note, prosecutors and police and jailers are not so much about Duty/Honor/Country as career.
      "Justice" in this country has not happened often, as far as I can see--just read Howard Zinn.
      We do have a free (if commercial) press and citizens who are still capable of outrage, at least one, living in Hampton.
      Stay angry, Maud.
      As Ben Franklin predicted, it's a Republic, if we can keep it.

      Mad Dog