The Tethered Eagle And The Refugee Refused Entry

A little over fourteen years ago, in the fall of 2002, shortly after I returned to the US after finishing my post-doctoral fellowship in Australia, I went to see the Yankees play at the old Yankees Stadium. I had arrived in New York City just a couple of weeks earlier; the Yankees were in contention for the post-season; a date had suggested a baseball game might be a good way to get back to city life; I agreed. I paid no attention to the date of the game she chose to buy tickets for: September 11th.

That evening, I showed up in time for the first pitch. Or so I thought. Once seated, I realized the significance of the date; a memorial ceremony was planned. It included all you might expect: flags, salutes to the military, anthems and paeans to the nation, all backed up by fierce chants of ‘USA, USA, USA!’ The grand finale of the show–one I predicted to my date–was a flyover by a F-15 Eagle fighter jet, which lit its afterburners with a crowd-pleasing ‘whump’ right over the stadium. The cheers grew louder.

That military jet was not the only Eagle on display that night. A little earlier, an American bald eagle had been brought out to the middle of the stadium–an American icon, a national symbol, a beautiful, powerful, bird of prey, used to soaring and pouncing and floating. It came out tethered with a chain to its handler’s wrist, unable to fly, confined to being a prop, and a confined and restricted one at that.

Irony hung heavy in the air.

I’ve never forgotten that sight. 9/11 didn’t just bring down three buildings and kill thousands of people, it also dealt a crippling blow to American liberty. Since that benighted day, the assaults on American civil liberties have grown. Along the way, the US committed war crimes in Iraq (among other countries), tortured prisoners, suspended habeas corpus for Gitmo detainees; and that was just overseas. At home, electoral disenfranchisement and assaults on reproductive rights were but mere samplers of the wholesale assault that seemed to be directed at any and all disempowered groups. (Along the way, America elected a black man whose middle name was ‘Hussein,’ an electoral result that sent enough in this country into fits of apoplectic fury. That fury has never abated; the backlash still reverberates.)

Donald Trump’s executive order banning Muslim refugees entry to the US isn’t surprising in this context–indeed, it’s a logical terminus of sorts. The land of the brave and free was scared enough to shackle its icon of freedom (and preferred to grant wings instead to a military jet named after it)–that seemed to have said all that needed to be said already. Why wouldn’t this land turn its back on its other vital national principles, its supposedly defining moral foundations? This was a country built on the idea that it would offer shelter to the world’s benighted; that idea can’t fly any more either.

Note: The ACLU has obtained a stay order from the Federal Court in the Eastern District of New York against the executive order.  Stay tuned.

An ISIS Communique For Our Times

From: Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi

To: All Jihadi Brothers

In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

My warriors, after Paris, much work remains to be done. But we have many new recruits. They are infidels, but they have to come to our aid, they will do our work with us. They will ensure that the Caliphate will find new capitals, that it will spread from sea to shining sea. They will turn upon the Muslims in their midst, the devout, and the apostates, those Muslims who–for whatever reason–do not grow their beards, whose women do not cover their heads, whose children do not memorize the Koran, who do not pray five times a day, who study in schools where the Koran is not taught, who do not fast in the holy month, who pledge allegiance to infidel flags. They will turn back refugees from their shores; they will prosecute their own citizens. They will drive them back into our fold.  We shall welcome those who show contrition for their desertion; for the rest, apostasy means death.

Every attack we launch upon the infidel West shows its tenuous hold on its  precious civil liberties, their freedoms that we supposedly covet. One attack on the Great Satan was enough to make it torture, spy upon its citizens, kill many Muslim brothers, and entrap yet others through perverse law-enforcement schemes. A few more artfully placed and timed attacks and we will bring the residents of these dens of fornication and perversity to their knees. In this task, we will be aided, as we already are, by those who continue to disenfranchise their own citizens and commit to oblivion their own esteemed moral, legal, and political principles. They continue to kill our innocent brothers and sisters and their children from the sky; they continue to imprison Muslim brothers without trial, scorning their own precious legal parchments from which the words ‘due process’ have so easily been scrubbed.

Between the anvil of the New Crusaders and the hammer of our armies, the apostates, those who left Muslim lands and vainly sought a better life elsewhere–believing foolishly in the propaganda and lies of secular written constitutions with their pathetic Bill of Rights, and in mock-revolutionary declarations of liberty, equality, and fraternity–will be crushed. They will find no new homes; they will be turned back from the shores that were to welcome them. Those Muslims who imagined they could  live in peaceful co-existence with infidels will find that there will be no such peace for them. They will be blamed for our work; they will be punished for it. Among them, we will find yet more soldiers.

Truly it is by Allah’s Grace that those who imagine themselves the New Crusaders are instead our Jihadi brothers. Such is Allah’s Infinite Wisdom that our enemies become our soldiers.  They speak of waging war against us but first they will wage war against themselves. They are termites who nibble at their own foundations; we need only direct them from afar.

Allah is Great. Victory will be ours. Welcome the New Crusaders.

The 9/11 Attacks: A Terrifying Spectacle, Viewed from Afar

On September 11th, 2001, I was in Sydney, Australia, working as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of New South Wales. I spent most of the day in my office, composing a long email to my girlfriend back in New York City, my former home for seven years, suggesting we break up. Our long-distance relationship was not working out; too much misery had been parceled out to the both of us; we hadn’t covered ourselves in glory; time to move on; and so on. I read and re-read and edited my email a few times, and then, as the close of the workday approached, saved a draft, and headed for home. I would read it once more at night before sending it off, hopefully bringing to a close an unnecessarily protracted series of disputations.

Once back in my neighborhood, I picked up some excellent takeaway Thai food from my local takeout joint–on Cleveland Street, Sydney’s home to amazing ethnic food–and a bottle of red wine. Time to eat. The pad thai was excellent, as was the rustic Shiraz, and soon, I was sated and drowsy.  I didn’t feel like editing and reading a long, dramatic email any more. I’d send it on the morrow once I was back at work. I watched a bit of television, and then headed to sleep.

A short while later, the phone rang. I picked it up, groggy and confused. An Australian friend from Melbourne was on the line.  He asked, ‘Are you watching the news?’ A little testily, I said no. He then continued, speaking quickly, in one breath, ‘I think you should; some hijackers have taken over a bunch of planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.’ This all sounded a bit bizarre, so I put the phone down, walked over to my living room and switched on the television. A close-up shot of one of the towers was being shown, with smoke billowing out of its windows. The scale of the building and the close-up confused me; it looked like a minor conflagration, perhaps caused by a small plane flying into the tower. But what was that about hijackers and the Pentagon? Still confused, I walked back to my bedroom, thanked my Melbourne friend for calling, hung up, and returned to the living room to continue watching.

Over the next few minutes, I slowly became more cognizant of the scale of the disaster unfolding before my eyes; I think I might have viewed some video of the jets’ impact. I’m not sure. And then, suddenly, it happened; the South Tower collapsed. I stared at the screen, incredulous. Perhaps this was a Hollywood movie being shot in New York City, and this building collapse had been rigged up for that? Somehow, strangely, I had managed to have my very own ‘it sounded/looked just like the movies’ moment. I continued watching, now transfixed by the spectacle. Half an hour later, the North Tower collapsed. I continued staring at my tiny television screen, barely paying attention to the newscasters.

I stayed awake for a while, sending some emails to my friends in New York City, inquiring after their well-being; I sent one to my girlfriend, hoping she was ok, and asking her to call me as soon as possible. Finally, the late hour and the wine caught up with me.  Besides, I was getting tired of the endless speculation about motives and the identity of the hijackers. I went to bed.  I wished I was back ‘home’; curiously, I felt excluded, looking on from the outside.  Miraculously, I fell asleep, and as I did so, I dimly sensed the next day would be quite unlike the ones that had preceded it.

That is my 9/11 story. That’s where I was; that’s what I did.

I never sent that break-up email; it wasn’t quite the sort of thing you do after a disaster like that. But we broke up anyway. I would return to New York City soon. First in December 2001, for an interview with Brooklyn College, and then, in August 2002, to begin my new job and life in a changed city.