“Exigent times call for very strenuous reactions”: Enemy Alien by Konrad Aderer

[The WRL blog is excited to feature a film review by Jeanne Strole, co-director of the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute, with which the War Resisters League shares a long history, as well as the building at 339 Lafayette St. in Manhattan.]

Enemy Alien (2011), Directed by Konrad Aderer [http://lifeorliberty.org/enemy-alien]

Review by Jeanne Strole

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, through the Alien Absconder Initiative, which allowed local law enforcement access to INS information on over 300,000 immigrants with standing deportation orders, task teams of local police, INS and FBI officials began to round up persons from Middle Eastern and South Asian countries of origin. In the time period from September 2001 through 2003, this initiative was the U.S. Government’s first effort to show that they were doing something about terrorism in the wake of the attacks. In the first waves, from September 2001 to the Spring of 2002, thousands of people were detained and deported. They were targeted solely due to their countries of origin and none were ever linked to any acts of terrorism.

In the decade since 9-11, administrative detention and the detention industry has grown in leaps and bounds in the United States and the freshly minted National Defense Authorization Act will undoubtedly further erode constitutional protections against arrest and detention without due process. Recent headlines tell of continued surveillance and profiling of Muslim neighborhoods and organizations by the NYPD while the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is expanding its contracts with local jails in states like New Jersey to further increase detention capacity. It is crucial then, in light of this continuing trend, to have a clear understanding of what the profiling and targeting of Muslim and South Asian immigrants looked like in the immediate post 9-11 environment and how it contributed to the continuing erosion of rights in the United States.

Enemy Alien, a film by Konrad Aderer, serves as a useful, if somewhat flawed, historical document toward that end. It tells the story of Farouk Abdel-Muhti, a NY-based Palestinian immigrant and activist, who was taken into custody in the subsequent wave of detentions beginning in 2002.

On April 26 of that year, Abdel-Muhti was held, first at the Federal Building in lower Manhattan, then in detention in New Jersey. This began a two year battle by his son Tarek, his friends, activist colleagues and an ad hoc legal team to secure his release. Before winning his freedom, Abdel-Muhtl would be detained in 6 different facilities in three states.

In March of 2002, Farouk had begun working at Pacifica Radio station WBAI. What is not specified in the film is that he was using his contacts to obtain and translate into English interviews with Palestinians from inside the West Bank for the morning radio program “Wake-Up Call.” These interviews began to air about a month before his arrest.

Adbel-Muhti was born in 1947 in a village outside of Ramallah, a Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank which was, at the time, under Jordanian control. He left the West Bank in 1960 and, being a stateless person, moved to Lebanon and then to Latin America before settling in the United States in the early 1970s. He had lived in the NYC area ever since. Though several attempts had been made to deport him over the years and he had a standing order of deportation, all attempts were, of course, unsuccessful because there was no place to deport him to.

During his two years in administrative detention, including 8 months and 10 days in solitary confinement, Abdel-Muhti faced a harrowing situation common to 9-11 detainees: he was subjected to extensive interrogation, verbal and physical abuse, beatings, and, often times, denied edible food and adequate medical care. He developed high blood pressure and a worsening thyroid condition while in detention and was repeatedly denied his medication for both for as long as five and six days at a time. In spite of these inhuman conditions, Abdel-Muhti was still able to continue his activism while in detention, organizing support on the outside for himself and the other detainees.

To give context to the case and to the targeting of immigrants from certain countries, Aderer’s film also explores the history and development of the deeply racialized immigration policies in the United States, beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1897 and the Plenary Powers Act, a supreme court decision allowing the executive and legislative branches of government to make immigration policy free from judicial oversight. He uses his own family history and his grandparents’ experience in the internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor, comparing it to the post 9-11 round-up of Muslim immigrants. The narrative of the film weaves back and forth between his family’s history with structural racism and detention and Abdel-Muhti’s story as a 9-11 detainee, giving the viewer an introduction to understanding the blatantly racist nature of immigration policy and how it dovetails with the government’s “war on terror.” The title of the film is a reference to Japanese-Americans being categorized as enemy aliens during that historic period of detentions. These comparative moments are some of the strongest parts of the documentary.

Through a mix of interviews and clandestinely filmed encounters with various law enforcement officials, Aderer illustrates well the government’s paranoia as well as their attempts to make Abdel-Muhti’s detention about a criminal and not an immigration case. This is startlingly illustrated by the accounts of the verbal abuse and ethnic slurs Abdel-Muhti endured during beatings in jail and written accusations against him which included claims that Abdel-Muhti recruited other detainees to Islam with rewards of money, “endorsed anti-American rhetoric”, and claims that he had knowledge of a suitcase nuclear weapons in the U.S., based on the discovery of drawings in his cell that he had copied out of detention facility library books.

At one point in the film, the absurdity of the government’s reaction to 9-11 and the scapegoating of immigrants is brought into sharp relief when an immigration lawyer and Democratic official, Michael Wildes, seems to be defending the Japanese-American internment.

“What about the argument that when we look back at what happened with Pearl Harbor and the Japanese Americans, everyone agrees that it was wrong?” Aderer asks him.

“Who agrees? Who agrees?” asks Wildes. He then adds, “I think, you know… exigent times call for very strenuous reactions.”

Cyrus Mehta, the Chairman of the NY Immigration Law Committee, is quoted in the film regarding the dragnet detention and deportation of Arabs and South Asians, post 9-11, stating that “these are people, that if they were connected with terrorism, they should not have been deported. You don’t use deportation against terrorists. This was a way to just get rid of Muslims who come from countries where al-Qaeda is normally present. It’s a way to show that something was being done.”

Aderer cites statistics from the 9-11 Commission Report regarding the activities of the FBI, the INS and the Absconder Initiative task forces: 140,000 people targeted for Special Registration; 13,000 people taken into custody on immigration violations, 6,000 Arabs and South Asians targeted for arrest and interrogation. Of these, the Department of Homeland Security claimed 11 people had connections to terrorist groups, but the Commission found these claims to be unsupportable, and one person was convicted of terrorism. That conviction was later to be overturned.

Key to the legal strategy to get Abdel-Muhti out of detention was  his status as a stateless Palestinian. Zadvydas v. Davis, a case decided by the Supreme Court in 2001, maintained that indefinite detention of immigrants who had no recognized home country was not permissible. To justify holding immigrants in detention for more than six months, the government needed to demonstrate that deportation was imminent or that the detainee was to be indicted on criminal charges. In Abdel-Muhti’s case, there were no legal charges and, because he was stateless, there was simply nowhere to deport him. As his attorney from the Center for Constitutional Rights, Shayana (Shane) Kadidal, points out in the film, “Farouk is undeportable, even in theory, by din of the fact the he left the West Bank before 1967. He can’t get an Israeli travel document and he can’t get a Palestinian travel document. So we’re looking at indefinite detention and that’s just not permissible for people who are not guilty of a crime.”

At a hearing in March of 2004, a judge finally ordered his release, maintaining that the government had no grounds to continue holding Abdel-Muhti. In a final act of abuse, he was suddenly transported from Bergen County, NJ, to a Federal prison in Atlanta, hundreds of miles from his family, his supporters and his legal team. After much wrangling from his attorney, he was finally released on April 12, 2004. He immediately went back to activism, organizing for the other detainees he had met inside and speaking tirelessly about his experiences and the conditions of detention. During one of these panel discussions on detention, in Philadelphia in July of 2004, Abdel-Muhti collapsed shortly after finishing speaking. He died at the hospital that night of an apparent heart attack.

Aderer seems to be working on the film from within the movement to free Abdel-Muhti and, as a consequence, seems too close to the subject matter to document it effectively. He employs a kind of visual shorthand that would leave a viewer who is unfamiliar with the case without enough information to contextualize many parts of the film. Aderer relies  heavily on shots of events and quotes from activists, lawyers and officials to tell the story. He also alludes several times to his difficulty in getting the film made and his underlying fatigue. These factors contribute to an overall weakness in the narrative story telling.

For example, the filmmaker could have done a better job elaborating on Abdel-Muhti’s treatment in detention and, more importantly, on the information he gathered about the other detainees who, because they were not necessarily activists, were much easier for the government to disappear within the system. Knowing more about their stories would have added greatly to the film as a case study and an historical record.

It would have also been useful to have his entire time in detention outlined in more cohesive detail: How many times was he moved and in how many states was he held? What happened to his defense strategy when he was moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania and back again? An activist working on the case mentions in the film that Abdel-Muhti’s habeas petition needed to be filed all over again from scratch, when he was moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, but more information on how this set back the effort to gain his release would have been useful; especially since moving detainees from state to state is a favorite government tactic to deprive them of access to their families, support systems and legal teams. This kind of information, if expanded on in the film, would have been very useful to give a deeper understanding of the harrowing circumstances that thousands of detainees face.

The filmmaker also takes the documentary in several different directions, with mixed results. The film is strengthened by parallels drawn between his family’s internment history and the Abdel-Muhti case, but is weakened by his attempt to make the film partly about his efforts to complete it. These moments in the film increase the narrative timeline confusion and detract from strong, clear storytelling. Showing the film in progress to people unfamiliar with the case, or with the post 9-11 targeting of immigrants in general, to get feedback on the completeness of the storytelling, might have resulted in a better documentary. The film’s timeline jumps back and forth, often without enough context, at times making the film confusing and the chain of events difficult to follow.

The legal strategy and the arguments used by his attorneys are described, and several members of his legal team appear in the film, but, again, a fuller picture of how the defense strategy developed is never fleshed out. The activist strategy, too, was shown in footage and images from demonstrations and committee meetings, and snippets of interviews with activists working on the case but not enough to give a full picture of the effort.

This film, with all its flaws, is still useful and worth seeing, but it misses an opportunity to delve much deeper and expose more of the early landscape of the “war on terror” and the targeting of immigrant communities.

Jeanne Strole is an artist and social justice activist living in New York City. She is currently a co-director of the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute.

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