A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb
Has post-9/11 fear created a not-so-brave new world of bullies and fools?
If Rip Van Winkle were to read A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb upon waking, he would most likely shake his head and dismiss it as farce.
Alas, youâ€™ll only find this title in the â€śnon-fictionâ€ť section of bookstores and libraries; itâ€™s published by an esteemed academic press and written by a respected professor of English at an elite American college. Indeed, â€śtruth is stranger than fiction,â€ť and â€śyou just canâ€™t make this stuff up.â€ť (Although, coincidentally, journalist/novelist/poet/professor Amitava Kumar also had a novel â€“ â€śNobody Does the Right Thingâ€ť â€“ published on the same day as â€śForeigner.â€ť)
Novel aside, â€śForeignerâ€ť is part contemporary history, part investigative journalism, part political treatise, part memoir â€“ and an absolute must-read. My greatest fear is that the readers who most need to read this book will not.
Kumar is an excellent storyteller. Heâ€™s also immensely convincing. Drawing on his vast, voracious knowledge of literature, film, television, and breaking headlines, Kumar makes a case that post-9/11 fear has created a not-so-brave new world of bullies and fools.
Moving fluidly between his adopted US home and his birthplace of India â€“ another country altered by concerns over terrorism â€“ Kumar carefully exposes what he sees as the senseless abuse of power justified by the â€śwar on terrorâ€ť: â€ś[M]uch of my reportage here is in the service of presenting the anti-terrorism state as the biggest bungler,â€ť Kumar writes in his acknowledgements as he thanks â€śthe non-experts,â€ť â€śthe losers,â€ť and â€śthe small people.â€ť
Kumar first focuses on two ineffectual men, each of whom he classifies as an â€śaccidental terrorist.â€ť He demonstrates in rich detail the ways in which both men were victims of legal entrapment, more guilty of stupidity than actual terrorism, manipulated into crime by others who were mostly concerned with saving themselves in the eyes of an already nervous US government.
The first â€śaccidental terroristâ€ť is Hemant Lakhani, a nearly-70-year-old failed businessman with delusions of grandeur, who was convicted of trying to sell a missile to a would-be terrorist. The missile was a dud, shipped to a New Jersey hotel room by the FBI, and brokered by a â€śterroristâ€ť who proved to be FBI informant Habib Rehman. Rehman â€“ also a failed businessman â€“ had considerable debts, a self-confessed track record as a liar, and a history of tax evasion. His handsome salary was funded by US taxpayers.
The second terrorist manquĂ© is Shawahar Matin Siraj, a 24-year-old Pakistani American, convicted of conspiring to bomb a NYC subway station. Kumar wryly questions the validity of â€śprosecut[ing] an individual as a bomber when there is no bomb on the scene.â€ť The lead witness against the unsophisticated Siraj â€“ who is caught on tape insisting on â€śNo killingâ€ť and wants to â€śask [his] motherâ€™s permissionâ€ť â€“ was Osama Eldawoody, an Egyptian-born nuclear engineer. Eldawoody was paid $100,000 by the New York Police Department to spy on fellow mosque-goers in Brooklyn and Staten Island. He became an informant via the FBI who literally arrived at his front door because a neighbor reported â€śsuspicious-looking packages on the doorwayâ€ť (clothing purchased online). The unemployed Eldawoody just â€śwanted to help.â€ť
Over and again, Kumar attempts to demonstrate that, as a character in Sir David Hareâ€™s play â€śStuff Happensâ€ť proclaims: â€śOn September 11, America changed. Yes. It got much stupider.â€ť Hasan Elahi, a California artist and teacher who was detained for questioning and endured a six-month FBI investigation, now uploads a constant stream of location-tracked, time-stamped photographs on his website TrackingTransience.net, in effect creating an irrefutable alibi for himself should he be picked up again.
Graduate student Mohamed Yousry, the court-appointed interpreter in the controversial conviction of blind Egyptian cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, is serving his one-year-and-eight-months-sentence for having provided â€śmaterial supportâ€ť to terrorists by translating Sheik Omarâ€™s Arabic words into English for defense attourney Lynne Stewart.
Art professor Steve Kurtz was illegally detained by the FBI on his way to the funeral home to bury his wife and investigated for bioterrorism stemming from a $256 purchase of harmless, legally-purchased bacteria for an art installation, â€ś... and even his wifeâ€™s body [was] seized.â€ť
Again and again, Kumar makes a case that the â€śred zone of a terrorist threatâ€ť has blinded post-9/11 courts to blatant injustice, condemnation without evidence, and even torture: â€ś[T]his new definition of public interest, where the argument is made in terms of national security,â€ť writes Kumar, â€świll trump all other claims every time.â€ť
That national security threat at home, Kumar argues, keeps citizens distracted from the â€śgreater horror of the other war [in Iraq] from our eyes.â€ť We fail to see â€ś[the] crying girl in front of us ... her dead parents, [her] fatherâ€™s skull collapsed because he has been shot so many times.â€ť
For Kumar, our failure to fully process such scenes becomes a â€ślesson in cultural awarenessâ€ť : for the Iraqi family, the carnage is murder; for the US military, stopping the unfamiliar vehicle is potential self-preservation.
Kumar sums up: â€śthe larger point is that the war on terror is obscuring from our sight the war in Iraq and its human cost.â€ť Then he asks the most important question of all: â€śIn the end ... who will teach the other to be human?â€ť
Terry Hong writes a Smithsonian book blog, BookDragon, at http://bookdragon.si.edu/.