The Lackawanna Six: Rough Justice in the Age of Terror is the deftly told story of six young men who got caught up in the quickly changing rules of America’s justice system after 9/11. I spoke last week to the author, Dina Temple-Raston, FBI correspondent for NPR and also the co-author of the recently published In Defense of Our America, co-written with Anthony Romero. She discussed her experience researching and writing her book, the differences between terrorists (or alleged terrorists) here and in Europe, why jihad is becoming a middle-class enterprise, and what we can do to get more involved in protecting civil liberties post 9/11.
BustedHalo.com: I read on your NPR bio that you wrote two books, learned Arabic, and completed a Master’s at Columbia during your two-year sabbatical. How is it possible to accomplish all of that in so short a time?
Dina Temple-Raston: Well I’m very tired. I’ve been writing this book for three years, along with the book on civil liberties with Anthony Romero [executive director of the ACLU]. And I’ve always worked when writing books. For anyone who has ever written, it makes you focus much better.
BH: The timing for your book couldn’t be better, what with Gonzales resigning, the Jose Padilla case, the increased awareness and discussion of “black-sites” and what to do about prisoners at Guantanamo.
DR: Total luck. I’d love to tell you this is exactly how I planned it, but it’s luck.
BH: Do you think people are starting to wake up to the Bush Administration’s mishandling of suspects and detainees in the war on terror?
DR: Rather than having just woken up, I there’s been a sort of slow understanding of it. In general, people were willing after 9/11 to give the administration the benefit of the doubt. Now they feel snookered, and when you feel snookered, there’s almost a backlash. You feel like someone has played you for a fool.
BH: What initially sparked your interest in this story of the Lackawanna Six?
DR: Well, if people were to look at what I’ve written from the beginning to now there actually is a system to my madness. The first book was about the James Bird killing in Jasper, Texas, and how that town sort of
represented where we were in terms of race relations at the dawn of the 20th century. My second book was about Rwanda and specifically about the genocide, which I also use as a way to also look at race. In America today, Muslims have become in a lot of ways the new blacks. There’s an expression in the black community that they are “born suspect.” Now Muslims are “born suspect.” People who should know better will narrow their lids when they see a Muslim come on the airplane or get on the bus with a backpack. There are certain assumptions people make about Muslims in this country now, and that got me interested.
BH: You point out in the book that people who join jihadi groups are often from middle-class backgrounds, contrary to our assumption of them being primarily poor and uneducated. Why do you think that is?
DR: I’m not entirely sure why it is except that maybe there’s a literary or intellectual aspect to it. You’re middle class and fairly educated, but you’re still looking for answers. The answers in the Koran aren’t easy answers. So I guess I don’t find the fact that they’re middle class and educated all that surprising.
BH: You portrayed the scene once the boys reach Pakistan and then Afghanistan almost comically, with them missing their Subway sandwiches. Clearly they were more attached to America than they thought.
DR: I meant it to come across that way. I thought it was quite poignant that, after Al-Bakri responded to the questions on the plane trip home, someone asked him “Do you have any questions for us?” To which he said, “Yeah how are the Bills doing?” Even the state trooper was feeling sorry for him.
What’s really instructive about the Lackawanna Six is that Kamal Derwish, their recruiter, thought that he could erase their American-ness in six weeks. They couldn’t wait to come back. That’s what sets us apart from these homegrown terrorism plots that happened in Europe—the alienation here is different. In the end, what we’re seeing in these Muslim communities in Europe are people feeling set apart, whereas here, they felt American first and jihadist second. For a small amount of time they thought jihad would be cool, and then the American-ness won out.
BH: You traveled in that area, right?
DR: Yes, and it’s important to point out that I actually followed in their footsteps. I was in Yemen, the villages they were from, to Pakistan and snuck across the border and right up to the precipice of where the camp used to be. I’ve done a lot of traveling and I got caught up in it all. And if I, dated as I am as a traveler, got caught up in the adventure of it all, can you imagine how exciting it must have seemed like for six guys from Lackawanna?
BH: I was reminded when reading this book how powerfully terminology works to shape a story—as with the boys being dubbed “a sleeper cell” even though there was no evidence to justify that term, or being called “Yemenis” rather than “Americans,” as if to call their citizenship into question. Do you agree?
DR: Absolutely. I mean they were guilty from the outset. And there were all these stories going out that they knew about 9/11 and could have stopped it. This is all to whip up a froth against these guys. One of the reasons I put so many excerpts from the Buffalo News in the book is that they were a pretty good representation of what the country was feeling at that time. So it’s kind of unfair from this distance to say “why did these guys consider these six were guilty from the outset?” The truth was in America at that time as soon as we heard someone was connected with al Qaeda, and Muslims, and immediately they’re suspect. To be fair, they did go to an Al Qaeda camp, but there’s an assumption they were lying in wait and were waiting to attack to America, and they were not six guys who were doing that.