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