By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Photo by Jeanne RiceSo I might be a terrorist, but I'm not completely sure; I'm still waiting for the government to let me know. Like many Orange Countians—150,000, give or take—I fit the description of a possible terrorist. What's that exactly? Does she walk around with a .38 Smith & Wesson, slaying heathenish infidels? Nope. Does her normal wardrobe include an "I [heart] Osama" T-shirt? No way; I tossed that out with my "I [heart] the New Kids on the Block" shirt ages ago. Does she conveniently create fictitious wars around election years? Not me.
I don't feel like a terrorist, but who am I to question the sophisticated methods used in our nation's counterterrorism agencies, as infallible as our nation's leaders. With new, cutting-edge advancements in technology, today's terrorists can be easily tracked down based on two factors: their last name and their country of origin. Forgive me, Big Brother, for I, having the last name of "Afghani" and my father being from, well, Afghanistan have thusly sinned twice. My being Muslim is simply an added bonus.
My family was contacted last August via post card—I suppose our Morse Code machine must have been down at the time. The piss-colored post card was addressed from Detective Boyd of the Los Angeles Police Department and asked us to "PLEASE CONTACT."
My father, the original Afghan in the family, had the honor of placing the call to the Anti-Terrorist Division at the LAPD. The conversation between my father and the detective basically resulted in the understanding that we, the Afghani family, were on some sort of a list that their highly developed computers had created. The detective wanted us to set up a meeting with him sometime in the near future. Where? Well, it seems the preferred meeting place for police and enemies of the state can now be found at your local coffee shop—doughnuts were not discussed.
How'd the meeting with the detective go? It didn't. My father, who's verging on his 70th year of life and his 45th year of living in this country, was not going to meet in some seedy cafť to discuss being possibly associated with any terrorist organizations just because of his last name and country of origin. He simply let this matter drop.
My family is no stranger to suspicion from law enforcement and other praiseworthy members of society. My sister travels by plane almost weekly for her work as an inspector for the food industry. Each time she enters an airport, without fail, she somehow gets "randomly" picked for luggage searches. It was bad enough before Sept. 11, when the various cooking utensils (scales, thermometer) she must lug around caused airport personnel to regard her as a coke dealer. Now, constantly singled out from her co-passengers, she wears only flip-flops to the airport.
My mother teaches at a Muslim elementary school. During the first Gulf War, back when Papa Bush was in office, she received numerous death threats to herself as well as the students at the school. Patriots showed their allegiance to this country by standing outside the school gates, yelling obscenities and promises of retaliation at the teachers and students for what their people had done. Years later, not much had changed. After Sept. 11, the death threats got so bad that the local police department had to keep daily watch at the school for fear that some God-loving, flag-waving American might actually keep one of their promises.
But no one in my family has suffered as much as my father. My old man's been through a lot: leaving one war-torn country, Afghanistan, for another, Palestine, for another. Having grown up in a refugee camp in Palestine, he's seen more than his share of "Detective Boyds" throw around allegations disguised in the shadow of the Law. He lost friends, family members and possessions to government-issued bullets, bombs and tanks. He was considered a second-class citizen because of his ethnicity and religious beliefs. His family had sacrificed everything they had to send him to America so he could have opportunities here that weren't available in Palestine. But even in the land of the free and privileged, my father continues to be that second-class citizen. Still, he didn't work his way through college by shoveling donkey crap on a farm in Pomona, receiving a degree in architecture and engineering at Cal Poly, only to live a relatively mundane life and let some badge who knows nothing about him take what he has away.
My family is not alone in our circumstance; the entire Muslim community, especially in Orange County, is being held under close watch. My mosque is a hotbed for terrorists; it's where terrorists are created, or so CNN would like you to believe. Following the May 26 release of the FBI's Top Seven Suspected al-Qaeda Operatives—which included OC native Adam Gadahn—the CNN van, equipped with a 10-foot broadcasting pole and correspondent Thelma Gutierrez, camped itself outside our Garden Grove mosque. "When he was 17," they reported, "he joined the Islamic Society of Orange County, declaring himself a Muslim. And that's when the trouble began!" [Cue the dramatic music and cut to a picture of little Muslim kids swinging on a jungle gym with giant, bold lettering underneath that says, "THE ENEMY."]
Common logic dictates that since a suspected terrorist stepped foot on that mosque, every congregant is now responsible for that terrorist's actions. Strolling around my mosque, I find it hard to believe these docile people—the aunties sitting around, drinking cups of chai; the uncles discussing whether or not Phil Jackson should coach the Knicks; mouth after mouth savoring the tastes of the best made-from-scratch samosas in town—could be on the bottom end of the al-Qaeda puppet master's strings. But who is going to argue with common logic?
Almost everyone at my mosque has experienced countless amounts of hatred during the past twenty-some years, and the majority of it seemed to be aimed at children: boys getting their faces smashed to unrecognizable pulps; girls pushed around and their scarves pulled off; students the target of college professors' racist remarks, not to mention the odd beer can, lit cigarette and trash thrown at them. Retaliation against Muslims created a fear that caused many to lock themselves in their houses and pray to one day see the salad-bowl analogies of this country transpire itself into myth.
That fear found its way into my own house. My parents had a whole spiel rehearsed. It's the same one they told me during the Sept. 11 tragedy, the same one they told me during the Gulf Wars, they same one they told me over and over again: "You know, you should really be careful nowadays. Maybe you shouldn't be so political at school. Maybe you shouldn't go to so many protests. Would it hurt you to stick an American flag up? We could hang one outside the house. I'll get you a sticker for you car. . . ."
And now, with an indirect link to suspected-terrorist Gadahn, the members of the Islamic Society of Orange County (ISOC) find ourselves presented with the task of clearing our names once again. Gadahn first came to ISOC in 1995 for conversion. After a brief stint at our mosque, Gadahn got into a physical fight with one of the mosque's board members, claiming we were too "liberal" for his tastes. He pleaded guilty to assault and battery charges, was asked to leave the mosque permanently, and was never seen again there.
But you probably couldn't tell that by watching the news. No, if you get your news from NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, KCAL or FOX News, you would probably think Gadahn not only converted to Islam in my Orange County mosque, but was also introduced to al-Qaeda there, learned combat techniques there, got his bombs there, and plotted his every terrorist-related activity there.
Even the FBI, which "has no information indicating that this individual is connected to any specific terrorist activities," had come to my mosque and spoke to members of the board in hopes of getting some sort of a lead on Gadahn. Their reasoning: Gadahn is a Muslim, and we're Muslims, so wouldn't every Muslim know every other Muslim in the entire world? And he was seen there only 10 years ago before he was excommunicated. To no one's surprise, the bureau's investigations at my mosque were fruitless.
"It wouldn't surprise me if they [the FBI] asked us to hand over a list of all our converts," my dad told me. "Can they do tha—" I stopped myself from asking. Sure they can. They're the government. They can do anything they want, can't they?
Taking everything he's been through and seen in his life, my dad knew nothing good could have come from responding to our post card accusation except a handcuffed walk down to Room 101—actually Room 702, according to the post card. If the cops thought he was a terrorist because of his last name, they probably wouldn't be convinced otherwise over an $8 cup of coffee from Starbucks, froth or no froth. You gotta love his balls.
Nearly a year later, I'm left asking myself, what happened? Isn't the government going to pursue this surefire method of catching the bad guy with post cards? Aren't they going to apprehend the very people striking fear in the hearts of the ever-so-victimized American society? Shouldn't my 69-year-old father be marking the days off a cell wall in Guantanamo right now? The weird thing, considering the historic reliability of police-department and other government officials, was that no follow-up was ever made.
"It was all a big joke," a lawyer friend of mine said. Several others who had received the same post card had also spoken to an associate of his. The outcome was all the same: no follow-through. Maybe the LAPD and the Anti-Terrorist Division (ATD) were too busy to call us back. Maybe America had already won the War on Terror and there was no more use for the ATD anymore. Better yet, maybe the Afghani family was off the hook, and Mike, our mailman, might have just lost the post card telling us that. Or—could it be—had a flock of senile, old terrorists taken the whole ATD out? I decided to give my old pals a call and make sure they were okay.
Thankfully, the ATD is still there, serving our country as frontline crusaders—fighting the everlasting battle against America's deadliest, freedom-hating enemies—arming themselves with the most dangerous weapon known to civilized man: post cards! Post cards that say, "Hey, we think you're a terrorist. Don't worry, we're probably not going to do anything about that, but can you give us a call and let us know if you're planning on bombing anything any time soon? That'd be great!"
So what's been going on with everyone these past couple of months? To my surprise, Detective Boyd has moved on, undoubtedly to investigate the old ladies in the Valley. Better keep an eye on those little tennis balls on the bottom of their walkers; you'd be surprised at the things they can hide in there.
My mosque can still be seen at its regularly scheduled time on the evening news—some Muslim man did something in Iraq, maybe we know him, too. But you can't blame the media for that. They need to put a face to the terror, and the little Muslim girl with pigtails and bows sucking on a lollipop is such an easy target.
As for the Afghani family, we're just going to go on living life as we know it—constantly being threatened by loud-mouthed jerks at work and permanently being held under the scrutinizing eye of bureaucracy forevermore. The government still can't tell us if we're terrorists—they're going to have to call us back on that one—but their offer for coffee is still on the table.