A month ago I experienced a very small taste of what hundreds of South Asian immigrants and U.S. citizens of South Asian descent have gone through since 9/11, and what thousands of others have come to fear. I was held, against my will and without warrant or cause, under the USA PATRIOT Act. While I understand the need for some measure of security and precaution in times such as these, the manner in which this detention and interrogation took place raises serious questions about police tactics and the safeguarding of civil liberties in times of war.
That night, March 20th, my roommate Asher and I were on our way to see the Broadway show “Rent.” We had an hour to spare before curtain time so we stopped into an Indian restaurant just off of Times Square in the heart of midtown. I have omitted the name of the restaurant so as not to subject the owners to any further harassment or humiliation.
We helped ourselves to the buffet and then sat down to begin eating our dinner. I was just about to tell Asher how I’d eaten there before and how delicious the vegetable curry was, but I never got a chance. All of a sudden, there was a terrible commotion and five NYPD in bulletproof vests stormed down the stairs. They had their guns drawn and were pointing them indiscriminately at the restaurant staff and at us.
“Go to the back, go to the back of the restaurant,” they yelled.
I hesitated, lost in my own panic.
“Did you not hear me, go to the back and sit down,” they demanded.
I complied and looked around at the other patrons. There were eight men including the waiter, all of South Asian descent and ranging in age from late-teens to senior citizen. One of the policemen pointed his gun point-blank in the face of the waiter and shouted: “Is there anyone else in the restaurant?” The waiter, terrified, gestured to the kitchen.
The police placed their fingers on the triggers of their guns and kicked open the kitchen doors. Shouts emanated from the kitchen and a few seconds later five Hispanic men were made to crawl out on their hands and knees, guns pointed at them.
After patting us all down, the five officers seated us at two tables. As they continued to kick open doors to closets and bathrooms with their fingers glued to their triggers, no less than ten officers in suits emerged from the stairwell. Most of them sat in the back of the restaurant typing on their laptop computers. Two of them walked over to our table and identified themselves as officers of the INS and Homeland Security Department.
I explained that we were just eating dinner and asked why we were being held. We were told by the INS agent that we would be released once they had confirmation that we had no outstanding warrants and our immigration status was OK’d.
In pre-9/11 America, the legality of this would have been questionable. After all, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated; and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.”
“You have no right to hold us,” Asher insisted.
“Yes, we have every right,” responded one of the agents. “You are being held under the Patriot Act following suspicion under an internal Homeland Security investigation.”
The USA PATRIOT Act was passed into law on October 26, 2001 in order to facilitate the post 9/11 crackdown on terrorism (the name is actually an acronym: “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act.”) Like most Americans, I did not recognize the extent to which this bill foregoes our civil liberties. Among the unprecedented rights it grants to the federal government are the right to wiretap without warrant, and the right to detain without warrant. As I quickly discovered, the right to an attorney has been seemingly fudged as well.
When I asked to speak to a lawyer, the INS official informed me that I do have the right to a lawyer but I would have to be brought down to the station and await security clearance before being granted one. When I asked how long that would take, he replied with a coy smile: “Maybe a day, maybe a week, maybe a month.”
We insisted that we had every right to leave and were going to do so. One of the policemen walked over with his hand on his gun and taunted: “Go ahead and leave, just go ahead.”
We remained seated. Our IDs were taken, and brought to the officers with laptops. I was questioned over the fact that my license was out of state, and asked if I had “something to hide.” The police continued to hassle the kitchen workers, demanding licenses and dates of birth. One of the kitchen workers was shaking hysterically and kept providing the day’s date — March 20, 2003, over and over.
As I continued to press for legal counsel, a female officer who had been busy typing on her laptop in the front of the restaurant, walked over and put her finger in my face. “We are at war, we are at war and this is for your safety,” she exclaimed. As she walked away from the table, she continued to repeat it to herself? “We are at war, we are at war. How can they not understand this.”
I most certainly understand that we are at war. I also understand that the freedoms afforded to all of us in the Constitution were meant specifically for times like these. Our freedoms were carved out during times of strife by people who were facing brutal injustices, and were intended specifically so that this nation would behave differently in such times. If our freedoms crumble exactly when they are needed most, then they were really never freedoms at all.
After an hour and a half the INS agent walked back over and handed Asher and me our licenses. A policeman took us by the arm and escorted us out of the building. Before stepping out to the street, the INS agent apologized. He explained, in a low voice, that they did not think the two of us were in the restaurant. Several of the other patrons, though of South Asian descent, were in fact U.S. citizens. There were four taxi drivers, two students, one newspaper salesman — unwitting customers, just like Asher and me. I doubt, though, they received any apologies from the INS or the Department of Homeland Security.
Nor have the over 600 people of South Asian descent currently being held without charge by the Federal government. Apparently, this type of treatment is acceptable. One of the taxi drivers, a U.S. citizen, spoke to me during the interrogation. “Please stop talking to them,” he urged. “I have been through this before. Please do whatever they say. Please for our sake.”
Three days later I phoned the restaurant to discover what happened. The owner was nervous and embarrassed and obviously did not want to talk about it. But I managed to ascertain that the whole thing had been one giant mistake. A mistake. Loaded guns pointed in faces, people made to crawl on their hands and knees, police officers clearly exacerbating a tense situation by kicking in doors, taunting, keeping their fingers on the trigger even after the situation was under control. A mistake. And, according to the ACLU a perfectly legal one, thanks to the Patriot Act.
The Patriot Act is just the first phase of the erosion of the Fourth Amendment. From the Justice Department has emerged a draft of the Domestic Securities Enhancement Act, also known as Patriot II. Among other things, this act would allow the Justice Department to detain anyone, anytime, secretly and indefinitely. It would also make it a crime to reveal the identity or even existence of such a detainee.
Every American citizen, whether they support the current war or not, should be alarmed by the speed and facility with which these changes to our fundamental rights are taking place. And all of those who thought that these laws would never affect them, who thought that the Patriot Act only applied to the guilty, should heed this story as a wake-up call. Please learn from my experience. We are all vulnerable so speak out and organize, our Fourth Amendment rights depend upon it.
Jason Halperin lives in New York City and works at Doctors Without Borders / Medicins San Frontieres. If you are moved by this account, he asks that you consider donating to your local ACLU chapter.
Courtesy Ardeshir Mehta at togethernet