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Wednesday, November 7, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Far-flung net ensnares innocent with the guilty

Newhouse News Service

I have two box cutters. That would get the feds' attention first.

Then they'd scour my home and find a terrorist's mother lode: the bags of fertilizer; the respirator; the biochemistry textbook; the dogeared book called "The Way Things Work," showing designs for nuclear power plants and transmission lines.

A quick perusal of my past would reveal more damning evidence, starting with the introductory flying course six years ago in which I asked a lot of annoying questions, mostly involving crashing.

If I were an Arab man, you would turn me in to the appropriate authorities. But I'm not. Like the overwhelming majority of people in the United States, I fit no terrorist profile. The mundane objects of my home will never be viewed as evidence. The threat of being harassed or wrongly accused remains an abstraction, if not an impossibility.

That's the problem with the domestic fight against terrorism: Most Americans have no fear of being mistaken for a terrorist. That's why we don't care — really care — about the more than 1,000 people who've been arrested or detained by federal authorities since Sept. 11. We don't care that they've been stripped, blindfolded, kept in solitary confinement or barred from calling family or lawyers for help. We don't care that some were whisked off to maximum-security prison on trumped-up charges — or no charges at all.

These are tough times, we say. Tough luck.

The terrorist search has become the most sweeping manhunt in U.S. history — as it should be. The government has been lax for years about monitoring its visas, borders and most-wanted lists. As a result, the United States has no idea how many people are living here illegally, or who may have come here legally with malicious intent. It is vital for federal authorities to scour all available records for leads: immigration records, flight-school logs, everything.

But as fishermen know, the farther you fling a net and the tighter the mesh, the more lives you accidentally ensnare.

I am thinking of the five foreign-looking men caught photographing the burning World Trade Center towers. I was relieved they were locked up after hearing they had box cutters. Good, I thought. Lock them up, toss the key.

Turns out these men were Israelis working for a moving company. Their box cutters were work supplies; their urge to take photographs was shared by thousands of people around them. They were questioned and detained, an unfortunate but justifiable mistake in the mayhem.

But then they were blindfolded, handcuffed in their cells and forced to take polygraph tests. They now face deportation.

Other stories are slowly emerging, as people get out of jail and try to clear their names. A restaurant owner who took flying lessons. A radiologist with a suspicious last name. Students who know biochemistry.

The questioning and even the brief detainments themselves aren't necessarily wrong: U.S. citizens remain at grave risk, and the government has an obligation to clear immigrants who've achieved certain skills that could be used against us, such as flying airplanes or transporting hazardous chemicals.

The problem is the strange nature of the detainments, and this ridiculous information blackout. We know almost nothing about the people who've been held — if they have access to lawyers, if they've been moved out of state, if they know the allegations against them. Fewer than 10 are considered material witnesses, and about 190 are held on some sort of immigration violation. The majority remain in custody.

That leaves as many as 900 detained for some other reason; we don't know what. All we get are statements from U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to the effect that detainments are an effective way to prevent crime.

The people behind bars are "suspected terrorist aliens," he says. He never says students, guest workers, legal residents or human beings. Always aliens.

The more Ashcroft talks about aliens, the harder it is to remember that innocent people are surely stuck behind bars, and that some people guilty of minor infractions (like failing to update their work visas) are being treated like major criminals.

Then every few days, another person wrestles free.

The story goes something like this: His wary neighbors call the authorities. FBI agents find a house teeming with evidence! A box cutter. An incriminating map of Disneyland. An ominous home video of Niagara Falls.

Then it turns out he was just another person who loved America, cleverly disguised as an Arab man.

Susan Nielsen is an associate editor at The Oregonian of Portland. She can be contacted at susannielsen@news.oregonian.com.

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