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Commentary Last Updated: Dec 27th, 2007 - 00:50:03

Enough security! Where's our humanity?
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Dec 27, 2007, 00:48

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When the word "extremism" is mentioned, we automatically think terrorism. We imagine maniacs who misuse religious tenets as an excuse to strap themselves with explosives or blow up cars. And we wonder how such people can be so self-righteous when they cause so much pain and grief to those who have done them no harm.

Unfortunately, like any disease, extremism breeds extremism and the way that certain Western governments are reacting to the contagion is almost as fanatical as the actions of the fanatics themselves.

There were several stories in the news last week that illustrate madness on the part of officialdom. Fear and xenophobia have overtaken human rights in some instances. Common sense has been replaced with paranoia. We should ask ourselves where legitimate security measures end and fascism begins.

Take the story of Erla Lillendahl, for instance, whose Christmas visit to New York turned into horror before it even began. Erla is an attractive young woman from Iceland who was looking forward "to shop and enjoy the Christmas spirit." When she landed at JFK airport she was directed to passport control, where officials discovered she had overstayed her US visa by three weeks in 1995. Much to her surprise they told her she would be sent home on the next flight.


So far so good! That's their prerogative. However, in this case, the punishment did not fit the "crime." After being interrogated, photographed and fingerprinted by the Department of Homeland Security, Erla was prevented from contacting anyone and made to sit in a waiting room for five hours without food or water.

Scared, tired and hungry, they promised to take her to a place where she could eat and rest. Soon after she was "placed in a cubicle that looked like an operating room," where she says "a chain was fastened around my waist and I was handcuffed to the chain." They placed more chains around her legs before marching her through the airport terminal "in full sight of everybody."

Her guards bundled her in a vehicle and refused to tell her where she was being taken. At the end of her journey was a jail in New Jersey where she was once again fingerprinted, photographed and forced to endure a medical examination. There she was questioned as to her personal beliefs. She spent the next nine hours in a "small, dirty cell" and once again was refused a call.

She was "hugely relieved" when they finally told her she would be taken back to the airport but horrified to discover she would once more be handcuffed and chained. "I begged them not to chain my legs" she said. Thus shackled, she was escorted to plane when by this time she was "completely run down in spirit and body."

Then on the heels of that craziness came the heartbreaking news of how Britain dumped a 15-year-old Iraqi asylum claimant on the streets of Austria without money, food, clothes or lodging. The boy known only as "J" was apparently wrenched from his foster parents at 4 in the morning and put on a plane to Austria, the point where he initially arrived in the EU. Nobody bothered to inform the Austrian authorities to expect a child and so, after enduring one night in a police station, he was abandoned to his own devices. For three nights he slept outdoors, suffering from cold and hunger, until the terrified youth was eventually accepted into a hostel for adults.

Anyone with any shred of humanity would be outraged at such a display of official callousness. Thankfully a British judge was suitably outraged and has ordered the Home Office to return "J" to the arms of his foster family in Britain.

Similarly inhuman is the way two British residents are being dealt with after being returned from America's Cuban gulag after more than four years of incarceration and alleged torture without charge or trial. Jordanian Jamil Al Banna and Omar Deghayes, a Libyan, arrived in Britain thinking they were now free men only to be re-arrested under a Spanish extradition order for offences related to terrorism.

Both men were allowed out of jail on bail -- partly paid by the actress and human rights activist Vanessa Redgrave -- and are subjected to control orders. But they must appear in front of a court next month so as to be fast-tracked to Spain, where they will face the same judge who, in 1999, requested the extradition of Chile's former military leader Augusto Pinochet, and was refused.

A thought

Here's a thought. If Spain had enough evidence to try the released Gauntanamo detainees for terrorism, then why didn't it pass this on to its US ally or to Britain, which presumably would not have pressed for their freedom in that case? Instead they will be hauled through the hell of separation from their families all over again.

It's clear that ordinary people are being victimised under the pretext of homeland security with the result we're all vulnerable to mean and spiteful officials high on power and low on intelligence. The experience of an American friend of mine who works for UNESCO and organises animal rights conferences in her spare time says it all. She says her feet were X-rayed four times at Heathrow. She joked that they were seeking chemical weapons no doubt. In truth, I could hardly raise a smile.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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