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The War in Iraq Is Over. Long Live the War on Terror!

Even though the president just declared we're done in Iraq, the paranoia hotline is still on fire.

Liz Armstrong

Even though the president just declared an official end to the war in Iraq--aka a good hunk of our so-called War on Terror--the paranoia hotline is still on fire. Over the past months troupes have been coming home after the nine years spent fighting for something a lot of us didn't think ever made any sense, and yet the Senate still passed the National Defense Authorization Act. This hands over domestic terror investigations and individual inquiry to the military, which means it’s cool to send anyone suspected of terrorism—not just the non-US citizens targeted in the Patriot Act—off to special prison without a trial for the duration of this “war on terror.” Which is supposedly over by the end of this month. This, combined with the discovery last week that FEMA’s put out a help-wanted ad for subcontractors to provide “temporary camp services” for facilities all over the country, is fairly alarming news.

It’s not new news, though. The government subcontracts anything from health insurance for local employees in Nigeria to building airplanes to producing maps. Winning a contract with FEMA, according to instructional DIY site eHow, is “moderately challenging,” and right now they’ve got a contingency call for companies who can respond quickly to a call for temporary fencing and barricades, hand-washing stations, refuse collection, potable water, and other elements that, when added up, seem to equal big-ass pop-up jails.

And prison privatization in general isn’t news either. Forty-nine percent of detainment centers for illegal immigrants (what's up Arizona!) are owned by non-government entities. Most of these companies were started specifically to get into the prison biz. And in order to start a corporation to run something so massively expensive the government can’t even handle it, you need some help with money. In step large investment firms and banks such as Lehman Brothers and Wells Fargo, who’re notorious for financing internment start-ups, and here’s one shortcut to the complex answer as to why no one on Wall Street is in jail: If you have stakes in keeping the prison industry afloat, you won’t be visiting it, even if you’ve broken the law.

Obama just cited reasons why we're ready to move forward in Iraq--namely that Iraqis are voting in democratic fashion, creating institutions that are transparent, and participating in an increasingly robust economy--and simultaneously quickly mentions continued efforts in fighting terrorism, lest we get too comfortable. The momentum in profiting off of fear is what made this war drag on for nine years, and why there's no end in sight to counter-terrorism initiatives around the world. Nowhere is it more publicly apparent in this country than at the airport, any airport, in all steps taken, from entering through one and exiting out another.

All the scanners and searches and being treated like you’re automatically suspicious just for wanting to get on a plane are, for most of us, an annoyance, if not outright violating. Then once actually in the air, you’re in a vulnerable encapsulated reality that is completely ungrounded in all ways. It feels very unnatural up there as it is, and all the commotion you just went through to get there only intensifies these feelings. Any deviation from the takeoff and landing rules we’ve learned as procedure makes us feel unsafe and fucked up. This is the only way I can explain why, on a recent flight from Chicago to Los Angeles, a bunch of us thought the guy sitting behind me was likely a terrorist.

Right as we were taking off we could hear him arguing with the guy seated next to him. As soon as we leveled off in the air, he beckoned for the flight attendant and began asking a bunch of strange, angry questions about when one is allowed to use electronics, and what kind, and demanding specifics, and why. And then he started questioning her about air marshalling, and how does one get that job, and whether or not they would they hire him. Who does that? Who needs to know so many intimate details about electronic devices and law up in the air? I tensed up in my seat and kept my focus on nothing, as you do on a plane.

When the flight attendant finished up with the inquisition, I casually looked behind me and saw the guy asking all the questions had a stack of hardcore books on Islam. I was sitting at the window, next to a four-year-old boy. His mother, at this point a stranger, passed her iPad over to me, on which she’d written a note: “I’m not into racial profiling at all,” it said, “but is it just me or is that guy being a freak?”

It took up a lot of my mind power not to start thinking crazy, clichéd things, such as that I was about to get blown up on a plane. No matter what the human looked like or worshipped when I turned around to look, this odd behavior would've frightened me. And knowing that someone else was secretly just as worried as I was, and that she had a child with her, made me get up and talk to the flight crew, invoking the ol’ “If you see something, say something” narc motto.

They had more bad news: They’d already identified him as a potential threat, and had an undercover pilot secretly watching him. “Please alert us if you notice any alarming behavior,” a flight attendant advised me. “Now would you like a drink?” Yes, I most certainly would.

I sat down, relayed the message to the mother in my row, and tried to behave in a cheerful and normal manner as we noticed the guy was now scrutinizing the safety and exit info cards. The crew and secret pilot continually visited us, and a quiet conversation started about possibly making an emergency landing.

I couldn’t stand the fear rising up inside of me. I believe in the good of people. I do not believe in that “terrorist on an airplane” meme, and in fact I think 9-11 was largely an inside job. So if I was going to die, or make an emergency landing to save my life, it might be good to find out why, before we all wrecked the rest of one Muslim dude’s existence and undoubtedly sent him off to Guantanamo forever. I turned around and said through the space between the seats, “Hey man, what’s going on? Are you OK?”

He angrily explained that he was detained at the airport on his flight from Saudi Arabia, totally searched, questioned, almost missed this flight, and needed to quickly call his family to let them know he made it. He didn’t realize he couldn’t use his cell phone while the plane was taking off. The man sitting next to him started a fight about it, which escalated into the Muslim man becoming the stereotype lots of Americans hold of Muslim men by aggressively trying to deny it.

Midway through our conversation I turned to the miniature panic convention happening next to me and said, “Everything is fine.” They decided to drop the emergency landing conversation, and it was super intense knowing, for the rest of the flight, that a whole group of people were basing their safety on my intuition.

The inside of Five Echo, an ultra-secluded and super tiny set of cells inside Guantanamo.

Had I not gone to jail for no reason before, who knows where this guy would be right now. My jail story is one I’ve told quite a few times, and it’s old news at this point—my friends are like, “Yeah, yeah, shut up about this one already”—though when you’ve gone to actual jail before it’s so horrifically demoralizing that it never really leaves you. I was locked up without ever being read my rights during the 2004 arrests in NYC at the Republican National Convention. Then I was held in a filthy, chemical- and oil-spill riddled bus depot (that was privately owned) for 17 hours, in city jail for another 30-plus, and in the meantime witnessed all sorts of inhumane treatment from zip-cuffs so tight and twisted they caused shoulder dislocation to people having to urinate and defecate in corners because they were denied bathroom usage. I was released without seeing a judge or a lawyer or ever knowing the official charges. Something like that will make you really, really question your actual safety and freedom in this country.

But I’ll leave the fear-mongering to airports and the government and blogs about the apocalypse. People like to stay positive, and I'm one of them, and think, “Oh, our government wouldn’t round up huge groups of people for no reason at a moment’s notice and send them off indefinitely.” The thing is, they would. They have (1942 detainment camps for Japanese Americans) and they are (Guantanamo), and they have periodically in between (temporary holding cells for mass arrests of protestors), so it’s likely it’ll continue. Know this: if you’re ever part of a group arrested en masse for no reason, it’s pretty easy to sneak in phones and cameras if you bury them deep in your clothing. Visual proof, not pre-theorizing or folklore after the fact, is the only thing that seems to incite change. At least let's hope so, Five Echo. In the meantime, don't fall prey to the fear. It's often not what you've been led to think.

@lizzyarmstrong