By Jason Halperin, Doctors without Borders
April 29, 2003
Two weeks ago I experienced a very small taste of what hundreds of South
Asian immigrants and U.S. citizens of South Asian descent have gone through
since 9/11, and what thousands of others have come to fear. I was held, against my
will and without warrant or cause, under the USA PATRIOT Act. While I understand
the need for some measure of security and precaution in times such as these, the
manner in which this detention and interrogation took place raises serious
questions about police tactics and the safeguarding of civil liberties in times of war.
That night, March 20th, my roommate Asher and I were on our way to see
the Broadway show "Rent." We had an hour to spare before curtain time so we
stopped into an Indian restaurant just off of Times Square in the heart of
midtown. I have omitted the name of the restaurant so as not to subject the owners to
any further harassment or humiliation.
We helped ourselves to the buffet and then sat down to begin eating our
dinner. I was just about to tell Asher how I'd eaten there before and how delicious
the vegetable curry was, but I never got a chance. All of a sudden, there was a
terrible commotion and five NYPD in bulletproof vests stormed down the stairs. They had
their guns drawn and were pointing them indiscriminately at the restaurant staff
and at us. "Go to the back, go to the back of the restaurant," they yelled.
I hesitated, lost in my own panic.
"Did you not hear me, go to the back and sit down," they demanded.
I complied and looked around at the other patrons. There were eight men
including the waiter, all of South Asian descent and ranging in age from
late-teens to senior citizen. One of the policemen pointed his gun
point-blank in the face of the waiter and shouted: "Is there anyone else in the restaurant?"
The waiter, terrified, gestured to the kitchen.
The police placed their fingers on the triggers of their guns and kicked
open the kitchen doors. Shouts emanated from the kitchen and a few seconds later
five Hispanic men were made to crawl out on their hands and knees, guns
pointed at them. After patting us all down, the five officers seated us
at two tables. As they continued to kick open doors to closets and
bathrooms with their fingers glued to their triggers, no less than ten
officers in suits emerged from the stairwell. Most of them sat in the
back of the restaurant typing on their laptop computers. Two of them
walked over to our table and identified themselves as officers of the
INS and Homeland Security Department.
I explained that we were just eating dinner and asked why we were being
held. We were told by the INS agent that we would be released once they had
confirmation that we had no outstanding warrants and our immigration
status was OK'd.
In pre-9/11 America, the legality of this would have been questionable.
After all, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution states: "The right of the people to
be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against
unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated; and no warrants shall issue, but upon
probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place
to be searched and the persons or things to be seized."
"You have no right to hold us," Asher insisted.
"Yes, we have every right," responded one of the agents. "You are being
held under the Patriot Act following suspicion under an internal Homeland Security
The USA PATRIOT Act was passed into law on October 26, 2001 in order to
facilitate the post 9/11 crackdown on terrorism (the name is actually an acronym:
"Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to
Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act.") Like most Americans, I did not recognize the
extent to which this bill foregoes our civil liberties. Among the
unprecedented rights it grants to the federal government are the right
to wiretap without warrant, and the right to detain without warrant. As I quickly discovered,
the right to an attorney has been seemingly fudged as well.
When I asked to speak to a lawyer, the INS official informed me that I
do have the right to a lawyer but I would have to be brought down to the station and
await security clearance before being granted one. When I asked how long that would
take, he replied with a coy smile: "Maybe a day, maybe a week, maybe a month."
We insisted that we had every right to leave and were going to do so.
One of the policemen walked over with his hand on his gun and taunted: "Go ahead
and leave, just go ahead."
We remained seated. Our IDs were taken, and brought to the officers with
laptops. I was questioned over the fact that my license was out of state, and asked
if I had "something to hide." The police continued to hassle the kitchen workers,
demanding licenses and dates of birth. One of the kitchen workers was shaking
hysterically and kept providing the day's date " March 20, 2003, over
As I continued to press for legal counsel, a female officer who had been
busy typing on her laptop in the front of the restaurant, walked over
and put her finger in my face. "We are at war, we are at war and this is for your safety,"
she exclaimed. As she walked away from the table, she continued to repeat it to herself?
"We are at war, we are at war. How can they not
I most certainly understand that we are at war. I also understand that
the freedoms afforded to all of us in the Constitution were meant specifically for
times like these. Our freedoms were carved out during times of strife by people who were
facing brutal injustices, and were intended specifically so that this nation would
behave differently in such times. If our freedoms crumble exactly when
they are needed most, then they were really never freedoms at all.
After an hour and a half the INS agent walked back over and handed Asher
and me our licenses. A policeman took us by the arm and escorted us out of the
building. Before stepping out to the street, the INS agent apologized. He
explained, in a low voice, that they did not think the two of us were in the restaurant.
Several of the other patrons, though of South Asian descent, were in fact U.S. citizens.
There were four taxi drivers, two students, one newspaper salesman " unwitting
customers, just like Asher and me. I doubt, though, they received any apologies from the
INS or the Department of Homeland Security.
Nor have the over 600 people of South Asian descent currently being held
without charge by the Federal government. Apparently, this type of treatment is
acceptable. One of the taxi drivers, a U.S. citizen, spoke to me during the
interrogation. "Please stop talking to them," he urged. "I have been through this before.
Please do whatever they say. Please for our sake."
Three days later I phoned the restaurant to discover what happened. The
owner was nervous and embarrassed and obviously did not want to talk about it. But
I managed to ascertain that the whole thing had been one giant mistake.
A mistake. Loaded guns pointed in faces, people made to crawl on their
hands and knees, police officers clearly exacerbating a tense situation
by kicking in doors, taunting, keeping their fingers on the trigger even
after the situation was under control. A mistake. And, according to the
ACLU a perfectly legal one, thanks to the Patriot Act.
The Patriot Act is just the first phase of the erosion of the Fourth
Amendment. From the Justice Department has emerged a draft of the Domestic Securities
Enhancement Act, also known as Patriot II. Among other things, this act
would allow the Justice Department to detain anyone, anytime, secretly
and indefinitely. It would also make it a crime to reveal the identity
or even existence of such a detainee.
Every American citizen, whether they support the current war or not,
should be alarmed by the speed and facility with which these changes to our
fundamental rights are taking place. And all of those who thought that these laws would
never affect them, who thought that the Patriot Act only applied to the
guilty, should heed this story as a wake-up call. Please learn from my
experience. We are all vulnerable so speak out and organize, our Fourth
Amendment rights depend upon it.
Jason Halperin lives in New York City and works at Doctors Without
Borders/Medicins , San Frontieres.