Talking About Terror

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[Amitava Kumar and Lorraine Adams will be in conversation today, August 27, at 6.30 PM at the Aicon Gallery in New York City. Admission is free.]

I have just received a letter from a man in prison. His name is Hemant Lakhani. Lakhani was a women’s clothing salesman who, in 2005, was convicted of selling an Igla missile to an FBI informant posing as a member of a jihadist organization.

Lakhani is one of the people I write about in my new book A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm A Tiny Bomb. He learned about the book’s publication by reading a review in the New York Times.

Mr. Lakhani writes to congratulate me but also to invite me back. There is more to tell, he writes. If I listen to his story, and write about it, he promises me that the book will be a bestseller. I will be interviewed by the mainstream press, including Charlie Ross (sic).

The Times review had also mentioned that I had visited a strip-club outside the Missouri high-security prison where Lakhani is incarcerated. I had a conversation there with a dancer about the man I had come to meet in Missouri. This didn’t sit well with Mr Lakhani and he writes in his letter that I must promise him that I will not go back to the strip-club again. Actually, in my opinion, Mr Lakhani is neither very moral nor very smart. But like his lawyer I’m very convinced that his client would not have made a good arms smuggler. No real terrorist would have come to him. There is little chance that he would have acquired a missile unless the FBI had arranged for one to be given to him.

Mr Lakhani is 75 years old and in poor health. It is very likely that he will die in prison. His letter to me is a sad document, and I apprehend its appeal, but I’m unwilling to engage it any further. It is true that I’m critical of the US government’s war on terror, and its futile and expensive engagement with minor characters like Mr. Lakhani. But that doesn’t mean that I’m also willing to pack up my bags any time soon and leave for Missouri.

But mine is hardly the only way to write about the war on terror.

Lorraine Adams is an American writer who was awarded a Pulitzer for work in journalism. But she quit her job as an investigative reporter for the Washington Post to write a prize-winning debut novel, Harbor. The novel tells the story of Aziz Arkoun, a 24-year-old Algerian stowaway who surfaces in the waters of Boston harbor.

Aziz was based on a real-life character, an Algerian man named Aziz Ouali, a 26-year-old East Boston dishwasher. He too had been a stowaway. After spending 52 days in the hold, he had swum ashore. This was in the late nineties. An Algerian man named Ahmed Ressam tried to cross into the US, near Seattle, with the trunk of his rental car packed with explosives. Soon, the government carried out a massive sweep, detaining Algerians across the board. Ressam was carrying a cellphone number that led the police to another Algerian man who was a room-mate of Aziz Ouali’s. They were all arrested.

In Adams’s treatment of her character, there is a great deal of sympathy. Aziz Arkoun has a rich past; like Ouali, he is a refugee from political violence. But, in what is certainly more a feature of fiction, Adams endows her protagonist with a fine and sensitive interior life. He is sentient in a way that earns the reader’s respect.

A few months ago, Adams wrote about the fate of Aziz Ouali. He was in prison, awaiting deportation. Ouali is a flawed character, of course, and Adams’s attention to this ambiguity is a part of the persuasiveness of her plea. In fact, the many pitfalls in his life, some of his own doing, make for heartbreaking reading.

In doing what she is doing, Adams has produced fiction that stands in opposition to the Manichean fictions of the post-9/11 state. In Mao II, Don DeLillo had famously written: “I used to think it was possible for an artist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory.” But people like to repeat this quote without in any way elaborating on the fact that the surveillance state has been most successful at governing our social spaces and our individual imaginations. An Aziz Ouali knows he is alive, or he is well, or if his family is whole, if he can see the outline of his face on a tiny piece of plastic called a green card.

The argument I am making here could be made clearer with another example. Do you remember the news-report about a videotape that showed Jose Padilla, jailed in solitary confinement for three and a half years, being taken out to a dentist? Padilla, jailed on suspicion of plotting a dirty-bomb attack, had been in his cell in the army brig in Charleston, South Carolina. In the report, his lawyers said that the video-tape showed that the torture, including solitary confinement, which their client has undergone at the hands of the military, has left him so psychologically damaged that he could not stand trial. In fact, Padilla’s lawyers had a difficult time persuading him that they were on his side.

In an article in Artforum, critic Graham Bader had this to say about Padilla: “In the videotape documenting one short episode of his military detention, he is shown on his way to a root canal down the hall from his cell, wearing blackout goggles and noise-blocking headphones, thereby prevented from experiencing even briefly anything outside himself, outside his merest existence as bare life, wholly at the whim of the state.” The video is testimony to “the state’s role in authoring the most basic experiences of life and death.”

The state is the real author, not Adams, not I. The state produces our stories and handcuffs them to our selves. We can reach out for other stories, but it is difficult. Adams has written that Ouali didn’t have enough English to read Harbor. His wife, an American woman from Boston, never told him about it. She said it was too painful.

Amitava Kumar and Lorraine Adams will be in conversation today, August 27, at 6.30 PM at the Aicon Gallery in New York City. Admission is free.

13 thoughts on “Talking About Terror

  1. “But people like to repeat this quote without in any way elaborating on the fact that the surveillance state has been most successful at governing our social spaces and our individual imaginations.”

    “Our”? As in detained suspects or citizens/residents? The State has governed social spaces since 1947 or so (at least in the US), and I’m doubt seriously anyone (myself included) governs my imagination.

    The state is a deranged, ADHD plagiarist; nothing else. Also, overlooked are the sources of state power.

  2. Amitava- this is fascinating. I wish it were here in San Diego. I think there are many more stories like this out there- ones where the State is the author behind the author or groups like the FIS and the GIA are co-authors. The sad part, certainly in the US, is that we are shown merely the phrase of the first sentence of the third chapter and then we make up another story out of whole cloth. I saw this when I was tracking down material on ASALA in France in the 80′s and on the FIS in Morocco in the 90′s. This sounds like a very interesting set of books. I hope the talk goes very well.

  3. From the NDTV link that you kindly provided,

    “The offences include money laundering, tax evasion, sexual harassment, disrupting railway traffic, mail fraud and demanding dowry. At least 25 per cent of the offences relate to over speeding and road accidents.”

    Now if you patiently scroll up, right to the top, you will see that the title of this blog post is “Talking about terror”.

    What was your point, again?

  4. “Actually, in my opinion, Mr Lakhani is neither very moral nor very smart. But like his lawyer I’m very convinced that his client would not have made a good arms smuggler. No real terrorist would have come to him. There is little chance that he would have acquired a missile unless the FBI had arranged for one to be given to him. “

    I don’t think we should be making excuses for people who are engaged in criminal activities. This is from taped recording of Lakhani with a person that he wanted to sell missiles.He is immoral and perhaps not very smart but that did not stop him from wanting to sell missiles to terrorists. And that no real terrorist would come to him, well that did not stop HIM from trying to contact people to whom he could sell weapons:

    “…..During questioning by Mr. Rabner, Mr. Rehman said he did not know Mr. Lakhani and had never heard of him before Mr. Lakhani called him in October 2001. Mr. Rehman testified that Mr. Lakhani told him that he had been given his name by a man in India named Abdul Qayyum. Mr. Rabner said authorities believe Mr. Qayyum is a terrorist.

    Mr. Rehman said Mr. Lakhani told him he had businesses in rice, textiles, oil and weapons and mentioned that he could get weapons from the Ukraine. He said he immediately called the F.B.I. about Mr. Lakhani’s offer.

    He also testified that the F.B.I. started taping their phone calls and meetings in December 2001.

    The two men spoke in Hindi and in Urdu during some 200 calls and meetings between December 2001 and August 2003. The recordings have been translated by the F.B.I. with Mr. Rehman’s help.

    Weapons were mentioned several times during the January 2002 meeting in the Newark hotel.

    “Do you have something latest? Latest missiles,” Mr. Rehman asked Mr. Lakhani. “Something sinister, just like Stinger. With an effective range of at least 15,000 feet.”

    Mr. Lakhani answered, “Yes.”

    The Stinger is an American-made shoulder-fired missile.

    Later in the meeting, Mr. Rehman said the Somali terrorist group needed 20 to 50 missiles and 200 to 300 antiaircraft guns. “Okay,” Mr. Lakhani answered. “You will get whatever quantity you ask.” http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/09/nyregion/09missile.html?_r=1&ref=hemant_lakhani

  5. “But like his lawyer I’m very convinced that his client would not have made a good arms smuggler. No real terrorist would have come to him. There is little chance that he would have acquired a missile unless the FBI had arranged for one to be given to him.”

    Couldn’t this be said about the Time Square Bomber as well? Most people that sign up for this is people that are either stupid, irrational or desperate, most likely all of the three. In the end in his search for a terror organization willing to take him, I would assume some one would have been willing to give him a job. The Stinger missile was FBI’s idea, but it could have been any idea, a car a Time Square perhaps.

  6. Joe Jake, Islamophobia. There is not way that the terrorists could be Muslims. Fear the Methodists among you!

  7. Yeah, some Methodists were arrested on a Chicago flight rehearsing a terror attack this week…

  8. After all this time and so many references, it is high-samay to devise a SM-specific Godwin.

    As an SM discussion grows longer, the probability of any discussion turning into one about Pakistan or Islam approaches 1. The rate at which this may happen can be affected by: 1. The Blogger’s ancestry or religious affiliation 2. The appearance of any South Asian-ness – Most often associated with a perceived lack of pride in their “Indian-ness” 3. Appearance of the name “Modi” or “Godhra” – Nostalgic expressions like “Ramjanmabhoomi”, “Babri Masjid” or “Ayodhya” are like an adrenaline shot to Mrs. Mia Wallace’s heart 4. Bengali names. All Bongs are Marxist. 5. (Only to popularize a sexy new term I’ve recently encountered , and 5 being a nice number) Westphobia. [ref: http://www.sepiamutiny.com/sepia/archives/006308.html#comment-277997

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    OP: Nice post!

  9. Dear Rahul, All the factors that you’ve mentioned above may show a correlation with discussions about Pakistan, but many are confounding variables. In my opinion,out of all blog post topics, the issue of terror (like in this one) has the highest coefficient of determination wrt Pakistan. Afterall, you cannot discuss Kung Fu without discussiong China- It is their martial art.