I have written repeatedly about the fact that it is when you are entering the US that you have the least rights and that the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which operates as part of the Orwellian-sounding Department of Homeland Security, abuses people with impunity by detaining them for long periods of time, harassing them, keeping them under harsh conditions, taking their property, humiliating and degrading them, and renditioning them to other countries to be tortured, all without giving them any reasons. Other countries also abuse their border powers, as what happened to David Miranda at Heathrow airport shows.
Another egregious case is that of Sarah Abdurrahman, a producer for the show On The Media that I listen to on occasion on NPR. Earlier this month she and her family and friends were driving home from Toronto, Canada after attending a wedding there. At the Niagara Falls border they were detained for six hours and experienced first-hand all but the last of the abuses listed above . Later when she tried to investigate what the CBP policies were and what rights travelers had at the border, she was stonewalled by the government. But it became pretty clear that the main offense they were guilty of was of simply being Muslim.
The host of OTM Brooke Gladstone talked with Abdurrahman about the events and her subsequent investigation of CBP and DHS practices and the 20-minute clip is well-worth listening to because it is both gripping and infuriating. One of the men detained said that the CBP officers acted like frat boys hazing a new pledge, taking delight and snickering in the indignities and humiliations they were heaping on their victims.
But it is not just Muslims or adults who get this kind of treatment. Abdurrahman and ACLU attorney James Lyle recount the treatment meted out to a four-year old child.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Lyle told me the story of four-year-old Emily Ruiz who was detained for 20 hours at Dulles Airport.
JAMES LYLE: She was crying hysterically, and agents refused to let her speak with her parents for over 14 hours. They kept her in a cold room, with no bed, blanket or pillow and didn’t give her anything to eat, other than a cookie and some soda.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Even though she was a US citizen, CBP ultimately deported the little girl. She returned to the US three weeks later and was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder.
Apparently keeping people in a cold room for a long time is part of the treatment and it was done to some members of Abdurrahman’s party as well. Although almost all of them were released after six hours, one of them was handcuffed in front of his children and told that he was not free to go and that he was being kept to be handed over to other authorities. This naturally alarmed them, thinking that the FBI was being brought in. But it turned out that the reason he was being held was because he had an unpaid ticket from 2006 for a crooked license plate and so the CBP at Niagara Falls called the Michigan State Police to come and pick him up.
The experience of Abdurrahman and the rest of her group make a mockery of the defense of authoritarianism trotted out by its apologists that “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”.
Glenn Greenwald describes other cases where the British and American governments are continuing to abuse their border control powers to silence and punish those who bring their abuses to light.
A well-known and highly respected Yemeni anti-drone activist was detained yesterday by UK officials under that country’s “anti-terrorism” law at Gatwick Airport, where he had traveled to speak at an event. Baraa Shiban, the project co-ordinator for the London-based legal charity Reprieve, was held for an hour and a half and repeatedly questioned about his anti-drone work and political views regarding human rights abuses in Yemen.
When he objected that his political views had no relevance to security concerns, UK law enforcement officials threatened to detain him for the full nine hours allowed by the Terrorism Act of 2000, the same statute that was abused by UK officials last month to detain my partner, David Miranda, for nine hours.
Shiban tells his story today, here, in the Guardian, and recounts how the UK official told him “he had detained me not merely because I was from Yemen, but also because of Reprieve’s work investigating and criticising the efficacy of US drone strikes in my country.”
Also yesterday, the Obama administration yesterday once again denied a visa to a Pakistani lawyer working with Reprieve, Shahzad Akbar, who represents family members of victims killed by US drones and is suing the US government, alleging that the drone kills are illegal.
As Reprieve put it, by denying Akbar a visa, the Obama administration succeeded in “preventing him from speaking in congress on the CIA drone programme next week”, to which he had been invited by House members to testify. Reprieve added: “Before 2010 Mr Akbar travelled regularly to the US. It was not until 2011, when he began representing victims of CIA drone strikes, that Mr Akbar began having significant difficulty getting a US visa.”
Also yesterday, the Libyan-American rapper Khaled Ahmed, better known by his stage name “Khaled M”, was removed from an airplane in the US without any explanation. During the civil war in Libya, he was hailed in US media circles for using his music to protest against the Ghadaffi regime. As his Twitter feed makes clear, this was part of ongoing harassment he experiences when flying at the hands of his own government.
Top secret US government documents obtained by the Guardian from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden characterize even the most basic political and legal opposition to drone attacks as part of “propaganda campaigns” from America’s “adversaries”.
In other words, criticize the actions of the US and UK governments, and they will consider you to be a collaborator of their perceived enemies and will treat you as such and give you a hard time.
Interestingly, I too am driving to Toronto to visit my cousins this coming weekend. Of course, since I am not a Muslim, the chances of me being treated like a third-class citizen on my return are considerably reduced. But not eliminated completely since I have brown skin, a foreign-sounding name, and my passport says that I was born in Sri Lanka which, given the dismal knowledge of world affairs and geography in the US, may well be thought of as an obscure Muslim-majority country. After all, we recently saw how Prabhjot Singh, a Sikh, was beaten up by a mob in New York City who thought that his turban and beard meant that he was a Muslim.
Of course, the solution is not for people like Prabhjot Singh or others who might also be mistaken for Muslims to go around with signs saying, “I am not a Muslim”. What is needed is for Muslims to have the same rights as other people and not have to fear being singled out for harsh treatment by the government or the public.