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What We Talk About When We Talk About Terrorism


Last Updated: 08/13/2013 4:09 pm

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How do we balance security issues versus the tactics that are used by law enforcement? And you see the consequences in certain ways when there are arrests made, like in the Lackawanna Six case. When the Six are arrested, then the entire surrounding Muslim community is put under surveillance. You’ve made the point that when this happens, the US loses its strongest ally.
After the Lackawanna Six were arrested, the uncle of one of them said, “We are living in a time of fire.” That feeling of being under siege is directly in opposition to that other reality—which is that someone in that particular community had actually been the individual who reported to government officials that the young men had gone over to an al Qaeda camp. In other words, the brutal and horrible suspicion of that community never for a moment admits that it was that community itself, through an act of self-surveillance, that offered up these men.
The use of these informants whose own nature and own motives, whose own histories are at least very suspect, to produce knowledge about communities that is dubious and in questionable circumstances, also casts this huge pall over the community. No one trusts anyone else anymore. It introduces suspicion and bad faith. And that means that you rely only on the worst people of a community to come forward and report to you; not its best angels. Reducing people either to criminals or to collaborators is no way which to heal the fabric of society that has been ripped.

You’re referring to 9/11.
Yes. And the healing that could have happened. It could have been expressed to the Muslim people: This is an injury to you and to us, you are a part of us. Instead, at every point, such as this mosque in New York City, to think that it is yet again an invasion or an attack. This is to constantly occupy the position, in bad faith, of a victim, when you’re actually, in some ways, the oppressor.

In your book, you present a sympathetic picture of these young men, the Lackawanna Six, who go to Pakistan to train with al Qaeda. They go, they train, and then most of them don’t like this whole idea of training with al Qaeda and return to Western New York. You’re also sympathetic toward John Walker Lindh’s father, a Catholic who allows his son to go learn about Islam in Yemen, after the kid watches Malcolm X and becomes intrigued by Islam. You state that these are acts of courage in a way, that these people are trying to learn about other cultures and it puts our ideas about multiculturalism to the test.
Yes. I want to insist on the ethics, if not the aesthetics, of the writer. I want to know for example, that the mattresses in the camps were uncomfortable. Al Qaeda camps sucked big time. For these basically Western kids, that is not what they had gone there for. And that interests me vastly. Not simply the issue of crime, but the issue of the little contradictions that complicate life and complicate crime and complicate the identities of these young men. They tried something and they found it utterly lacking, that it was not what they had wanted. And they came back to their own country, which is the US. They came back to Buffalo in all of its glory and rust.

You write in your book about the attacks in Mumbai of November 2008, when 10 men, members of the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, killed 173 people across the city. You telescope in on one of the young men as he is setting fire to an opulent room in the Taj Hotel while talking to his handler in Pakistan.
Yes, you can actually watch it on YouTube I think. But I also have the police transcript of the calls that were intercepted as the Mumbai attacks were going on, between the handlers in Pakistan and the terrorists as they went about their work in the hotel setting fires and killing people. You hear the handler’s voice urging the terrorists to go ahead and set fire to things, but for a moment the terrorist, whom I imagine to be from a small town or small village in Pakistan, is dazed. He is dazed by the opulence of his surroundings and he tries to tell the handler about the curtains, the huge windows; he’s looking at the tiles, the huge potted plants. Indian hotels can be dazzling. He recognizes a future that is not his. This place isn’t hell, it is actually paradise and he wants to acknowledge that before he sets fire to it. And the handler says, “Forget that, go on, set fire to it.” When the young man talks about the carpets, the handler says, “Bunch it together, set fire to it.” When the young man says that the computers are so big—which are actually plasma TVs on the walls—there’s a part of me that can see this. I came from a small town and then I came to this country, and I recognize the great charm, allure, and fascination of a place that offers those things that are denied to you.
These are the little moments to see the human in others, and the human in you, and that is what will rescue us. What will rescue us is precisely our own humanity and what is the denied humanity of the other. So that will be the connection. It is not by seeing the other as the brutal criminal and discovering inside of us the brutal torturer that is going to promise us salvation. That is only ushering us into a bigger and more savage war. And that cannot offer us any protection from anything, ever.

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