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It Could Happen Here

I want to tell my boys not to worry. But as Muslims or Arab descent, they are at risk.

By Laila Al-Marayati

Laila Al-Marayati is a physician and spokeswoman for the Muslim Women's League based in Los Angeles.

May 18, 2003

Not long ago I rented the movie "The Count of Monte Cristo" to watch with my two sons, who I thought would enjoy the exciting, action-packed tale. My 11-year-old surprised me, though, by becoming very agitated as the protagonist, Edmond Dantes, was banished to the Chateau d'If, a grisly prison on a desolate island where torture was the order of the day.

"Are people tortured in prison today?" he asked.

"Well, yes," I admitted.

"What about here, here in America?"

"No, of course not," I reassured him. "It's something that only happens in other countries."

"Can they take you out of prison here and send you somewhere else to get tortured?" he asked.

I am usually honest with my children. But not this time. I had recently read that U.S. officials had admitted to sending detainees abroad to countries with regimes that have no qualms about using torture to get people to cooperate. This was not information my son needed to hear.

"Absolutely not!" I assured him. "Why are you so worried about this?"

"Well, what if they make a mistake and you get taken to jail even though you didn't do anything wrong? I mean, what if they sent you to jail just for being Muslim? Everyone thinks Muslims are terrorists and bad people."

His fear of arbitrary arrest and torture disturbed me, especially since this is the reality for some Muslims here and many more abroad who have been incarcerated as suspects in the "war on terrorism."

Our family has roots in Palestine and Iraq, so naturally we are preoccupied with events overseas, but we limit the exposure of our children to media coverage of the Middle East. We don't discuss the threats to their civil liberties at the dinner table.

Though our children are proud of their ethnic heritage, they identify themselves as Americans. At their Islamic school, parents and teachers reinforce the notion of an integrated Muslim American identity. Muslim values, they learn, can contribute to the betterment of their country. Some of the kids have ties "back home," visiting frequently, perhaps creating a dual allegiance. Not so in our family. We don't spend our summer vacations in Baghdad or the Gaza Strip.

I don't have the heart to tell my boys that, if pending legislation passes, our security as Muslims living in America  even as citizens by birth  will be at risk, or that my son's questions might foretell his own future.

Earlier this year, the Justice Department prepared a draft proposal to revise the USA Patriot Act, a post-Sept. 11 law that greatly expanded the ability of law enforcers to track suspected terrorists. If the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003 outlined in the memo (known widely as Patriot II) is ultimately passed by Congress, the government would, in the name of fighting terrorism, be granted sweeping new surveillance powers, more leeway to detain citizens indefinitely without charge and the ability to present secret evidence against those accused of supporting terrorism. The death penalty would be expanded to include certain terror-related crimes. The government would also have the authority to strip Americans of their citizenship for providing support to an organization deemed a "terrorist group," a term that is broadly and vaguely defined.

I want to tell my children that as law-abiding American citizens, they have nothing to worry about. But I know that simply obeying the law won't keep them from being profiled at the airport, monitored while attending the mosque or wiretapped if they participate in Muslim-oriented activities on campus when they go to college. The truth is, they will be suspects, simply because of their identity as young adult Americans who also happen to be male, Muslim and of Arab descent.

We can hope that our elected officials won't agree to the further erosion of civil liberties and will refuse to pass Patriot II. But if they lack the resolve to question something that wouldn't make us more secure but would render America unrecognizable to our founding fathers, then we're all in trouble.

"The Count of Monte Cristo" raised frightening issues for my sons. But it also made an important point. When Dantes was at the height of despair during his imprisonment, he rejected God for having abandoned him. Later, when the words etched on his cell wall, "God will give me justice," were proved true, he vowed never to lose faith again. His troubles may have caused my son to agonize about the injustices that could befall him one day, but perhaps he also learned from the film that God's justice prevails despite man's injustice to man.

Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times

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