NEW YORK-"A society," wrote Fyodor Dostoevsky, "can be ranked by how it treats its prisoners." Former UN Secretary General Peres de Cuellar said: "You measure the justice of society by how it treats its children." Judging by the recent round-up of two teenage girls, America is falling short by both measures.
They've vanished into the netherworld of a Homeland Security gulag and their story has already disappeared from the headlines, but the shocking case of two 16-year-old girls from New York City arrested a month ago ought to inspire outrage among every American worthy of the name. Since the government's reasons for the girls' imprisonment could apply to virtually any teenager, it should also spark fear.
Like many rebellious teens, I fought with my mother. Local police, called to my home during at least one particularly impressive clash of wills and voices, talked us back into the land of the calmly reasonable. Then they left.
Like many young people, I was fascinated by morbid, violent subjects. After I turned in an essay depicting a political assassination from the killer's viewpoint, my creative writing teacher sent me to talk to my guidance counselor. After I assured him that I had no desire to knock off any politicians, he returned me to class.
A quarter century later, my mom and I are best friends and I haven't done anything the Secret Service ought to worry about. Right now, however, two girls from New York City are rotting in a HomeSec prison in Pennsylvania for doing nothing more than I did-one for fighting with her parents and writing an essay, the other accused of being her friend.
In early March, The New York Times reported on April 7, one girl's parents "went to the local police station house" in the Queens Village neighborhood because "their teenage daughter ... had defied their authority." Things calmed down and the parents, believing their daughter had been scared straight, asked the NYPD to forget the whole thing.
It was too late for that.
Without a warrant, NYPD detectives and federal agents burst into the girl's home-no wonder they don't have time to look for Osama!-where they "searched her belongings and confiscated her computer and the essays that she had written as part of a home schooling program," say her family. "One essay concerned suicide ... [that] asserted that suicide is against Islamic law." The family is Bangladeshi. They are Muslim. That, coupled with the mere mention of suicide bombing in her essay, was enough to put the fuzz on high alert.
Although she is conservative and devout, the girl and her parents vigorously deny that she is an Islamist extremist (not that such opinions are illegal), but this is post-9/11 America and post-9/11 America is out of its mind.
Based solely on an essay written by one of the two, the FBI says both girls are "an imminent threat to the security of the United States based upon evidence that they plan to become suicide bombers." But the feds admit that they have no evidence to back their suspicions. Nothing.
"There are doubts about these claims, and no evidence has been found that such a plot was in the works," one Bush Administration official admitted to the Times. "The arrests took place after authorities decided it would be better to lock up the girls than wait and see if they decided to become terrorists," another told the New York Post. The same logic could be used to justify locking up any Muslim, or anyone at all. Heck, maybe that's the idea.
The Bangladeshi girl, who was homeschooled and wears a veil, says she never even met her outgoing and more Americanized "co-conspirator" from Guinea before the cops accused them of plotting to do ... something. Maybe.
She says FBI agents threatened to deport her parents and place her American-born siblings, a four-month-old baby and an 11-year-old, in foster care unless she confessed.
Even in PATRIOT Act-era America, alleged fantasies of martyrdom aren't a crime. So HomeSec's ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is holding both two girls as illegal immigrants-one for entering the U.S. without an inspection, the other for overstaying her visa. And even that charge rests on razor-thin ice: "This is a girl who's been in this country since she was 2 years old," the Guinean girl's teacher says. Ditto for the one from Bangladesh. Holding kids accountable for the actions of their parents is crazy, which is why immigration authorities don't usually do it. Two-year-old babies don't wade across the Rio Grande or overstay their visas. Deporting American teenagers-American in every way that matters-to countries they've never even visited is equally insane.
I would be the first to applaud the FBI if they had arrested two proven would-be suicide bombers before they had the chance to strike. If they have evidence to that effect, they should make it public and bring charges in open court. But that's clearly not the case here.
When this story first broke, I didn't write about it because I assumed that a public outcry would soon lead to its reasonable resolution. Sadly, this has not happened.
Homes searched without a warrant, kids thrown in prison for thoughts real and imagined, people's lives destroyed by an out-of-control federal government-will Americans speak up for what's right? Please call and write your congressmen and senators to demand the release of the two girls from Queens.