It was a hot summer night in Raleigh, NC. My father, mother, sister and I were in the backyard, watching the stars pierce the black night sky. Sitting in a folding chair, my father held a short-wave radio in his lap,and kept playing with dials in an attempt to get better reception.
I was only five years old, and I didn't speak Arabic at the time. But I knew it was this funny language that my mother and father sometimes talked to each other when they didn't want my sister and I to know what they were saying.
Those same unfamiliar syllables were belting out of the little black box on my father's lap. I never knew what type of program my father was listening to, only that he and my mother were thrilled to be hearing something in Arabic so far away as they were from the Middle East and with so little of an Arab community around us.
The neighbors were less thrilled.
I remember the knock that came at the door that night, and the two police officers flashing their badges. I remember my father's dumbfounded look, and my mother's angry one.
The police had come to our home to investigate what one anonymous neighbor had reported as "suspicious" and "subversive" activity in our home.
Later, my father would always laugh when he recalled that story. But today, it's no laughing matter. I'm sure listening to Arabic on a short-wave radio would invite a visit from the FBI. Even worse, it could result in weeks or even months of detention for Arabs in America who are not United States citizens.
Hundreds of people who have done little more have already felt the heavy weight of fear and suspicion.
Some of those people are friends of mine. It's become almost a joke among some groups of Arabs who get together and swap FBI stories. One friend, who is gay as well as Arab, received an FBI visit because an anonymous tipster phoned the FBI hotline and reported my friend as someone who writes "subversive" e-mails on the electronic discussion groups in which he participates.
"Just think about it," my friend told me, laughing. "I am a Palestinian gay man who opposes both Zionism and Arafat's administration of the Palestinian Authority, as well as U.S. foreign policy. Anything I say is probably subversive!"
An office worker in Washington, D.C., similarly alerted the FBI to a "suspicious" coworker of Arab origin. The hot tip? Over the summer, the Arab man's computer screen saver showed the New York skyline...with the World Trade Center Towers featured prominently.
Yet another acquaintance in New York, also a gay Arab who is active as a social worker in the local gay Arab community, told of his visit by the FBI. "I honestly didn't think it was all that ridiculous that they were questioning people," the man began. "But when they actually asked me if I knew Osama bin Laden, I realized how ridiculous this was. They were on a blind fishing expedition."
While these anecdotes may at first seem funny, they can be gravely serious. In their blind sweeps, the authorities have detained more than 830 people, primarily Arabs and Muslims. Most of these people did nothing more suspicious or dangerous than tune into a short-wave radio.
According to an Oct. 21 report in The New York Times, "none of those arrested have been accused of playing a supporting role in the hijackings." Indeed, the newspaper reports, "many of those in custody have done nothing more than violate immigration rules, drive aggressively or in some cases annoy neighbors."
I can already hear some people saying that anyone who is in violation of immigration rules deserves to be detained and possibly deported. But if authorities randomly went out and rounded up people of any particular nationality or ethnic origin...say, people from Latin and South America, or from Africa, or anywhere else...they would easily find many who weren't following the immigration code by the letter of the law. Some of those would be gay and lesbian people, who skirt the Immigration and Naturalization Service because immigration laws do not recognize the right of gay and lesbian binational couples to stay together.
As civil-rights lawyer Randall Hamud told The New York Times the government is "arresting Arabs all over the country to make the public think they are doing something." And the sloppy, mass detentions of so-called "suspicious" Arabs and Muslims has another huge negative impact: It makes law-abiding Arabs and Muslims feel under siege and frightened, and thus less inclined to cooperate or help authorities on any front.
I remember when gay serial murderer Andrew Cunanan was going around the country killing people. As a professional homosexual, I appeared on a daytime talk show in Philadelphia, where I was living at the time, to talk about the then-unsuccessful hunt for Cunanan. Also on the show was an FBI agent, who at one point complained that the FBI was not getting as much cooperation as they would like from the gay community. But why? Because there was so much mistrust by gays of the police community. Many gay people were more wary of the FBI and police than they were of the minimal chance they would personally run into Andrew Cunanan.
Law-abiding Arabs in America feel that sentiment a hundred times over when they live in an atmosphere where simply speaking their own language or sending money home to their families overseas or criticizing American foreign policy in the Middle East can end them up detained for weeks with no rights, no communication with their families, and no legal recourse.
Another danger: It can give the rest of the country a false sense of security, making people feel allegedly safer without actually doing anything to hinder further acts of terrorism.