August 15, 2006

Questions With Disconcerting Answers

The last of the eleven missing Egyptian students were captured/collected on Sunday.

Oh, did you not hear about this story? Not surprising, it's been kept pretty quiet over the past two weeks, as perhaps it should have been -- it's entirely possible that this is a non-story that's been wrapped up satisfactorily, and exemplifies how the system is working. Not working ideally, perhaps, but working.

On July 29th, seventeen Egyptian students arrived in New York City en route to the mid-west for a summertime cultural exchange and English-language program at Montana State University. While six of the students went on to arrive in Montana on time and without difficulty, the remaining eleven students disappeared.

All of the visiting students had an impeccable record with no known ties to militant organizations. The FBI was quick to downplay terrorist concerns, saying
"At this point all they have done is not show up for a scheduled academic program and their student visas have been revoked."
There was no fanfare, no public vilification, no national witch hunt and great public outcry, no angry mobs hunting for Muslims -- just a few notes in the newspapers, and a quiet FBI investigation into what appeared to be simply an administrative visa violation.

Slowly but surely over the next two weeks the 11 were tracked down and arrested. Two had rented an apartment in Richmond, Virginia. Another two found themselves a place to live and work in Baltimore, Maryland at an Egyptian-owned pizza place. One was found at O'Hare, trying to board a flight to Montana, two turned themselves into authorities, and the others were rounded up in Iowa and Minnesota.

The captured Egyptians all appeared to be intentionally ditching their academic program to attempt to find work in America.

It is easy to lose sight of the very real fact that despite Islamic antipathy to the West, despite five years of elevated tensions and an seemingly eternal war on terror, America remains the land of opportunity for much of the world. While the ICE rightly takes issue with the Egyptian students for flouting our immigration laws, we can likely put this case to bed as a basic immigration issue. We lost track of some students in New York, which was unfortunate, but only two weeks to round up eleven missing folks doesn't sound so bad, does it?

The story may end there. It could just stop there, and be nothing more than an interesting story about young Muslims who dream of a better life in America, and engage in the same significant but non-threatening criminal activity that thousands of Latinos, Chinese, and many others engage in every year without ever being accused of terrorism.

While conventional wisdom would call any unreasonable fear-response to the missing students something akin to racial profiling, I'm forced to wonder at the distinction between racial profiling and a healthy respect for the value of our hard-earned experience. Seven of the 9/11 hijackers had "student" listed as their occupation on their visas as well.

I believe that nothing occurs in a vacuum, and in this case, the missing Egyptians weren't the only story last week.

For several years now, our government has been concerned about cell phone use during terrorist attacks, both as a means of triggering explosive devices, as well as the more mundane method of communications amongst the terrorists themselves. Which is why I can't help but regard the following "coincidences" as unusual:

While we were looking for those eleven Egyptians, 3 men from Dearborn, Michigan were arrested less than a week apart. In the first arrest, at 24 year old Muslim was arrested with 150 - 200 untraceable Nokia Trac-phones in his car. In the second arrest, two 20 year old Muslims were arrested with several pre-paid cell phones and several thousand dollars in cash.

Meanwhile, two immigrant men from the Republic of Georgia were arrested last week in Pennsylvania with 15 prepaid cell phones and $4,200 in cash. Also in the van was a laptop computer with a global positioning system.

Meanwhile, three men were arrested in Michigan for collecting material to support terrorist acts and surveillance of a vulnerable target - the five mile Mackinac Bridge. The three men, young Muslims in their late teens and twenties, had nearly 1,000 Nokia Trac-phones in their van. These three had been opening their purchased phones and throwing the batteries in one container, the chargers in another, and the phones in a third. Yet they claim they were involved in a business venture and intended to resell the phones for a profit; the very phones they were disassembling when apprehended.

Meanwhile, on August 10th we learned of an extensive plot from Great Britain to destroy up to ten airliners in mid-flight using a concoction of a Gatorade-type sports drink and a gel-like substance. (Any drink that claims to be high in electrolytes, such as Gatorade, generally means it is high in sodium and potassium - two elements that are potent electron-conductors.) The liquid bomb would have been detonated by either an Ipod or a cell phone.

Meanwhile, the very day we learn of the British terrorist plot, cell phone service was interrupted in Queens, New York. Sprint had nearly 75 of its cell phone towers in Flushing, Queens affected, yet Verizon claims it was merely a leak that damaged some of their wired, network gear. Flushing, Queens is an area of New York City conveniently proximate to both La Guardia Airport and also John F. Kennedy International Airport - one the destination airports for the grounded flights from London.

Are these disparate, unconnected events? Are the men involved innocent, petty criminals who each merely happen to be young and Muslim? Is it unfair racial profiling to suspect them of any nefarious terrorist activity? And in the last case, was our government responding to a potential threat with an intentional cell phone outage in an attempt to suppress potential terrorist cell phone use?

Pattern-recognition is, in my humble opinion, the meta-tool humanity uses to accomplish all of our most celebrated tasks. Our science and technology and our very co-existence derive from our ability to perceive and anticipate actions, behaviors, and events that will have an impact on us. In particular, the ability to instinctually recognize threatening situations is an often written about human trait that was responsible for our early survival as a species, as well as the ongoing survival of individuals when facing danger.

Yet what is the line between racial profiling and pattern-recognition? Perhaps there is no line, other than the perceived opinion of the former being socially inappropriate. Can liberals in 21st century America even discuss the issue without becoming bogged down dealing with the social conditions and root causes that result in both the animosity of Muslims the world over toward America, as well as the American predisposition to believe that young Muslims who are up to minor crimes may in fact be up to major ones?

It would be a relief to ascribe the incident of the eleven temporarily missing Egyptian students to something as wholly American as striving for a better life, yet in the face of so much unusual Muslim activity this past month, can we pretend there is any such thing as coincidence?

Do we ignore the painful object lessons of our own recent past in favor of an optimistic, politically correct world view? Do we ignore our highly developed and instinctual sense of danger in favor of a noble yet potentially disastrous moral high ground? Do we label these events as ominous, or do we merely call it an interesting spate of petty criminal activity by coincidentally Muslim twenty-something men?

Meanwhile, August 22nd is the day traditionally ascribed to Mohammed's elevation to heaven. Islamic history tells us that on August 22nd, Mohammed stood on the rock in the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and ascended to heaven "while a great light lit up the night sky." This is considered one of the central events in Mohammed's life, and a very significant date for Muslims.

Meanwhile, Iranian President Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be wiped off the map, and has asserted that Israel has "pushed the button of its own destruction."

Meanwhile, despite the U.N. demanding Iran respond by July 29th to the incentives the U.N. offered Iran regarding Iran's nuclear program, after weeks of stalling Iran has finally told the U.N. they will indeed respond, but not until... wait for it... August 22nd.

Does Ahmadinejad have something in store for the world this month, inspiring the recent spate of criminal/terrorist activity in America and the U.K? Does he perhaps plan to once again "light up the night sky" over Jerusalem on August 22nd, as his way of answering the U.N. regarding Iran's nuclear intentions?

And are these question a healthy exercise in pattern-recognition, or the insidious racial profiling of peaceful Muslims?


At 7:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While six of the students went on to arrive in Montana on time and without difficulty, the remaining eleven students disappeared.

Moreinteresting is the fact that slipped through the cracks that the 11 who did not get to Montana had every intention of getting on the connecting flight to Montana but had been bumped off due to secrity (profiling) delays in processing them.

It was the TSA that was responsible for these guys not getting to Montana on the very first day. lol!

Teh cell phone hyseria is too funny. this exact scheme is posted in half the dorms in America!

At 11:45 PM, Blogger Dan said...

Considering how only one seemed to make any effort to get to Montana (the fellow collected at O'Hare) I can't credit your statement that they "had every intention of getting on the connecting plane."

While it's certainly possible that they were not planning any terrorist acts, it's absurd to think the two working in a pizza place in Maryland intended to complete their program and were merely delayed.


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