War on terror has domestic casualties

As an ironic consequence to its war against terrorism, George W. Bush’s administration is instilling fear into the hearts of many Americans. Even as the campaign in Afghanistan has produced few significant al-Qaida casualties for several months, the broader campaign has not been without its domestic casualties – until last week. Five individuals fell victim, not in spite of the war on terrorism but because of it. Gurdeep Wander, Harinder Singh, Ashmad Butt, Ayman Gheith and Omer Choudhary all had their lives irreparably altered because of the state of paranoia the United States is currently experiencing.

Wander and Singh currently face up to 20 years in prison for the crime of wanting to use a restroom. Shortly after his flight began last week, Wander asked to use the restroom. Once inside the bathroom, he did open the door three times at the flight attendants’ request but refused to come out while he was shirtless and shaving. Singh wanted to use that restroom after Wander finally did come out, but was denied such privilege. Fearing a terrorist threat, the flight was rerouted and a bomb squad was called. Wander and Singh were placed under custody for intimidating a stewardess, although the search produced no incriminating evidence. There were no explosives on the plane. The U.S. attorney handling the case admitted the two had no links to terrorism or terrorist groups. They were on vacation and in a rush after their flight had been canceled and then changed. For this, they now face the possibility of 20 years imprisonment.

In another instance, Butt, Gheith and Choudhary had their lives disrupted for the wrong of talking while in a restaurant. Although the conversation they had is in dispute, it is agreed that they discussed the possibility of bringing down a car from Kansas City, Mo., their point of origin, to Miami, their destination. To Eunice Stone, another restaurant patron, the discussion of “bringing it down” meant Butt, Gheith and Choudhary were terrorists discussing a bombing in Miami. As soon as they left the restaurant, Stone called 911, which led to a 17-hour search of their vehicles and nationwide media coverage. Consequently, the hospital in Miami they were traveling to received a number of hostile phone calls and e-mails and, as a result, canceled their internships. Now the threesome must travel back to their school, find other internships and hope they do not encounter the same anger again.

Florida authorities labeled Stone a hero for her act, which, of course, is an insult to the word. At best, she took a reasonable action from an unreasonable conclusion. The likelihood of terrorists discussing – in a public place – a bombing to occur the next day, is either incredibly small or makes the terrorists incredibly inept. A moment of pause before making Stone’s momentous leap to conclusion would have been more appropriate.

Stone, however, is not alone. In an online poll CNN conducted over the weekend, approximately 80 percent of respondents believed Stone did not overreact. And this is the heart of the problem. In a saner world, the United States’ response to Stone’s call would not be approval, but moral outrage. Innocent remarks at a restaurant coupled with an ethnic profile should not be enough to justify a call to the authorities. Shaving in an airplane should not be enough to justify 20 years in prison. Today though, American’s feeling of security has eroded. The benefit of the doubt has shrunk to razor-thin dimensions.

Instead of fostering fear, the Bush administration must radiate calm. It must present the United States with a realistic evaluation of its current risks instead of engaging in forecasting destruction some time and in some place. It must disengage from inciting terror as did Vice President Dick Cheney’s May warning of future attacks to CNN, “tomorrow or next week or next year.” It should more thoroughly explain why, last week, it placed the United States on orange alert.

The United States is a nation at conflict. The leaders of al-Qaida are still at large. A certain amount of prudence and watchfulness is appropriate and even necessary at this time. However, just as not all late-night noises are burglars, not all irregularities are the result of terrorists. In determining how watchful to be, Americans should consider all the resulting ramifications of their responses and mete them without with a more judicious measure.