Know when to hold 'em

Posted: Dec 14, 2001 12:00 AM
If ever there's a case that smacks of racial profiling and callous disregard for civil liberties, it's that of Shaquil. Authorities first targeted Shaquil, not because he committed a crime, but because workers at his trade school reportedly told authorities that the 33-year-old Muslim of Moroccan descent was acting strangely. Then, based on suspicion, the FBI used a common visa violation -- his visa had expired -- to hold Shaquil without indicting him for four months. That's right, four months. Some agents even wanted to tap Shaquil's laptop. Civil libertarians can find relief in the fact that FBI lawyers determined that there was not sufficient cause to tap the laptop. Still, the feds held Shaquil based on a paltry visa violation. His mother told reporters that her son was "brainwashed" by Muslim extremists and that he was innocent. In America, critics used cases like Shaquil's to show that Attorney General John Ashcroft was the Great Satan on civil rights, as he showed an unholy willingness to detain for long periods noncitizens who committed what Good People consider immigration violations too minor for detention. It's clear that the government detained people innocent of involvement with terrorist cells. There were good people who must have dreaded the experience. Nonetheless, the story of Shaquil explains why Ashcroft pushed for more police powers after the Sept. 11 attacks. You see, Shaquil is a nom de guerre for Zacarias Moussaoui. The Justice Department believes that Moussaoui, a French citizen, was the fill-in 20th hijacker, who was chosen for the task after the United States rejected five visa requests made by one Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, who was then living in Germany and apparently was the terrorists' first choice to be the 20th hijacker. If found guilty, the French citizen could face the death penalty. Authorities detained Moussaoui on Aug. 16, after folks at the Pan Am International Flight Academy called authorities. Moussaoui already had failed at one flight school. Now, having chalked up 57 hours of flight time, he still couldn't fly a private plane solo, yet he wanted to learn to fly jumbo jets -- if without the bother of takeoff and landing. At first, according to this week's indictment, Moussaoui lied in saying that "he was simply interested in learning to fly." Then, he stopped talking. Still, the feds held him. They had, after all, found two knives, flight manuals for a Boeing 747, fighting gloves, shin guards and a flight simulator computer program. Authorities later would learn that in June, Moussaoui made inquiries into starting a crop-dusting company. The indictment time line suggests that the terrorists may have sped up their plans lest the government be alerted to their bloody agenda. Asked at a press conference if agents might have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks if they had more latitude, FBI Director Robert Mueller defended the decision not to examine the computers, but said, "Now, could we have done something else, perhaps, to avoid (the attack) in that investigation? Who can say? All I can tell you is that the agents on the scene attempted to follow up aggressively." Polls show that Americans support the administration's quest for more legal powers because citizens at least understand that this is war and aggressive measures are appropriate. A critic, after all, could look at Moussaoui on Aug. 21 -- the day before operatives started buying airline tickets -- and see a man unfairly detained for four months based on his videos, his reading material, his speech, his quirky ideas about flying -- and his radical Islamic associations. A purist would have demanded that Moussaoui be released, which would allow him to disappear into America while awaiting a hearing that would never happen. Release might have left him free to fly a crop duster full of poison or to provide one more body to fight off the rebellious passengers on United Flight 93. This American can't help but wonder how many lives federal agents may have saved when they decided, back in August, that Moussaoui had violated immigration law, that it looked as if he were up to something very rotten, and they weren't going to let him run after a slap on the wrist.