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Ben and the Immaculate Conception

 

This story originally appeared in a zine called Spoiled Ink, February 2005

 

Ben Major might never have become a terrorist if he had politely walked away from O’Hare on the morning of May 9, 2003. By error he had been entered into the Computerized Airline Passenger Pre-Screening System as Ben Majir, a name not matching his driver’s license and expired credit card. On that basis he was denied permission to board the PhoenixAir flight to Seattle. Misdirected blows are a fact of life. Accepting them is difficult at the best of times, and this wasn’t the best of times for Ben Major.

Traveling to Tacoma ranked near the bottom of things he wanted to do. Due to poor service and the unreliability of flight schedules, he’d come to despise flying even before 9/11. He hadn’t been in an airport since, although cash flow concerns figured more prominently in his boycott than any political principle. The exception had been prompted by filial duty, the death of his derelict father. As Liam and Fabiana Major’s only child, Ben hadn’t grudged his mother when she called from Oregon to let him know of Liam’s unexpected passing in Washington State. The fact that Ben hadn’t seen the old drunk in ten years didn’t enter the calculation. Fabiana, who teetered on the brink of homelessness herself due to the costs of fighting a swarm of imaginary illnesses, broke her son’s heart as she described hearing from “a cop who thought it was funny” about how Liam had been hit in the head by a dumpster lid. In a voice quavering on the verge of incoherence, she recounted her estranged husband’s temper, his abandonments, his penchant for English food swimming in grease. His demise added new profundity to Fabiana’s grief. Now Liam had robbed her of the last word. Nor could she continue to cherish the hope of braining him herself for failing to grant it.

Inflamed by the intransigence of the PhoenixAir ticketing agent and emboldened perhaps by the nerve pill and cans of beer he’d consumed on the way to the airport, Ben hadn’t accepted his bad luck gracefully. Instead, precisely at that supremely inauspicious moment, he had the misfortune to recall suffering through American History several times in the course of his formal education. He convinced himself not only that he’d read the United States Constitution, but also that he’d done so more recently than the security officers who descended on him. The smaller one, a stocky Black woman named Patton, departed from her scripted unresponsiveness only long enough to zap him with a taser when he tried to establish contact through a touch on the shoulder.

Even so, Ben might have escaped with an indefinite ban from commercial aviation and charges limited to assault and battery on a federal official and public intoxication, had he displayed more sensitivity during his interview with agents of the Federal Internal Security Taskforce at the Cook County Jail. But his typically American understanding of absurdity let him down. After two hours in a holding cell, he had been re-cuffed and moved to a private interrogation room where Special Agents Blum and Hardin introduced themselves with all the solemnity of an old episode of Dragnet, complete with badges flipped in his face, another recitation of his rights, and the offer of a steel chair opposite theirs at a table anchored to the floor. Hardin, the hyperactive one with the shaved head, skinny neck, and yellow windbreaker, who reminded Ben of Tweetie Pie on crack, produced a tape recorder and began an identification spiel. Ben couldn’t help thinking he was being punked as some kind of joke. He blew off the attorney idea and told them to get on with what he assumed would be the prelude to his release.

Benjamin Alan Major, aka Ben Majir, male cauc, (? Middle Eastern descent), black attire (? anarchist), height 5’ 10’, weight 147 lb., stated DOB 6/19/75. Ben had no Arabic blood despite the agents’ suspicions; his complexion and curly hair favored Fabiana’s Portuguese ancestors. And his wardrobe selections had been dictated in part by the cleanliness of the possibilities on hand. These matters, though relevant, were of secondary interest to Blum and Hardin. The prick had ruined a perfectly good Friday afternoon by showing his butt at the airport, thus triggering the mandatory screening protocol. Major/Majir compounded his offense by disrespecting the process. He showed no remorse at ruining Blum’s plan for an early start on visitation with his kids.

While the Special Agents of FIST listened to most of the jerk’s story with professional skepticism, they had no trouble believing that a wife had thrown his sorry ass out six months earlier. Major/Majir claimed to be unemployed, having lost a job as a certified nursing assistant at the Sandhills Rehabilitation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, around the time of marital separation. He refused to identify the friend in Skokie with whom he’d been staying. Subject denied involvement with anarchist factions or other specific leftist, environmentalist, or Islamic groups of interest. But these denials were rendered questionable by stated belief that the presidential election had been rigged and that the United States had liberated Iraq for oil. Further, he admitted to having lived in Springfield, Oregon until age eighteen when he left home for Eugene, ground zero of the violent anarchist subculture. Subject was vague about his activities during this period of time.

Hardin, known to his co-workers as Hard-on for his interrogation style, probed these discrepancies for the better part of half an hour, well past the time Blum considered reasonable. But Hardin was no happier than his partner when Major/Majir turned inconvenient with a capital I.

SA Hardin:       You’re wasting my time. Fred’s kids are waiting for their daddy, and you’re wasting their time. Jack-offs like you got nothing better to do, I guess. We’ll let you get back to it as soon as you tell us what we need to know.

Subject:            You think I’m a god damned terrorist?

SA Hardin:       I don’t know what you are, sir.

Subject:            You want to hear I’m an anarchist? Would it make your day? Is that what you want? What if I was? I haven’t done anything.

SA Hardin:       What are you telling me?

Subject:            Not a damned thing! You couldn’t keep me here even if I was, could you? Not if I haven’t done anything. So okay, J. Edgar, here it is, I want to blow up the fucking country, starting with you! Osama bin Laden calls me when he has trouble sleeping. Saddam Hussein is my idol. Now get the fuck out of here and let me go home!

Blum slammed the table, cracking a bone in his wrist. He jumped from his chair, knocking it over in the process, and danced in circles as excruciating pain, embarrassment, and stress pried at the cheese steak he’d wolfed down in route to this fiasco. Major/Majir hooted and broke into a cackle, forcing Hardin to shut him up. Only at that point did subject turned suspect Major/Majir demand a lawyer.

Of course, by then it was too late. Legal representation for a terror suspect required approval from the Department of Justice, and that would not be forthcoming until the completion of a thorough Federal case assessment. Because a single failure in the evaluation process could cost thousands of American lives, no time constraints or outside factors could be allowed to compromise it.  Major/Majir was about to disappear indefinitely. O’Hare Transportation Security officials and the Cook County Sheriff’s Department would be instructed in their duty to forget what they thought they knew and apprised of Homeland Security’s policy of prosecution for felonious lapses in amnesia.
 
Blum regained control of his stomach while Hardin reassembled paperwork and caught his breath. After helping Hardin secure the suspect, Blum excused himself to make the necessary arrangements. The Cook County duty sergeant down the hall understood the implications of Blum’s elevated wrist instantly. Because of federal paranoia, Sergeant Rudiski hadn’t been allowed to have men present during the interview. But Rudiski would be the one to explain how a prisoner had been allowed to assault a federal agent. The sergeant was pissed. It took several minutes for Blum to convince the man he had nothing to worry about. Rudiski would complete his incident report, emphasizing the involvement of a terrorism suspect. As he did so he could thank his lucky stars that he had been spared the procedural chasms which now separated Blum from his children. FIST would then assume responsibility for the suspect’s file. The sergeant and Cook County were in the clear.

Major/Majir had, by virtue of his terroristic threat, become a bona fide terrorist, albeit of the most piddling variety. Sergeant Rudiski’s report did its best to buy him some credibility. In large block print running off the edge of the page, it identified the detainee as Majir, Benjamin Al, disheveled 27 year-old Caucasian, originally arrested at O’Hare after threatening the life of a TSA officer. The circumstances necessitating Incident Report arose when, during detention at Cook County, Suspect inflicted serious injury on FIST Special Agent Fredrick K. Blum during questioning. Federal protocol prevented Cook County from monitoring the session; jail personnel had therefore been unable to prevent said assault. Suspect sustained minor lacerations to the face during his outburst and complained of pain in his head, upper body, and in his hands secondary to handcuffs. FIST District Office declined assessment of suspect’s complaints by dispensary staff.
 
At 10 pm Ben was removed from Cook County by federal marshals, driven to a nearby commercial airport, and loaded aboard a transport plane with six other shackled men and their keepers. Still woefully behind the curve, he allowed his Irish to run riot. Ben did want to kill. He cursed, spat at, and otherwise abused the marshals by all available means during the drive to the airfield. That attitude, not some bureaucratic inanity, explained the gag and hood applied aboard the aircraft. But vindictiveness, augmented by the Rudiski report and SA Hardin’s personal account, probably played a role in the marshals’ decision to experiment with a new restraint procedure they weren’t supposed to have seen on CNN. Telling Ben’s fellow prisoners to watch and learn, they forced him to kneel on the cabin floor between the benches and held him in that position with webbing straps. By trial and error they arrived at a pattern and tension that jerked his arms painfully behind his back whenever he tried to relieve his knees by falling forward or to the side. Ben’s convulsive efforts to regain a kneeling position seemed to impress the other passengers. They didn’t like it though when he vomited and nearly choked to death before someone removed the gag.
 
When the plane landed in Oklahoma City, they hustled him through a series of checkpoints into a building with hollow echoes and an electrical hum. They stopped in a place smelling of Clorox where a voice asked his name, next of kin, medical conditions, and other vital statistics. His hood was removed for another set of photographs. Ben’s retinas reeled in the harsh fluorescent lighting and camera flashes. A concrete gray room gradually materialized around him, staffed by personnel with faces as ashen as their uniforms. One sat at a computer terminal entering information from a stack of papers. The marshals, in their colorful blazers and Sans-A-Belt slacks, seemed out of place. As soon as decorum permitted, they collected their hardware from Ben, offered some final etiquette suggestions, and left, muttering at their walkie-talkies in lieu of a conventional farewell.

After the completion of the weighing, measuring, and fingerprinting, the gray men told Ben to strip, bent him over, and subjected him to a cavity search, a procedure simplified by a stunning blow administered to the back of his head. Following this indignity he was led to a stall where a guard sprayed him with disinfectant from a carwash wand. Ben covered his eyes and turned slowly as instructed, trying not to flinch in the cold jets of wash and rinse. Then he patted himself with a dingy towel before stepping into the voluminous paper pajamas he was given in lieu of his own clothing and personal effects. These were enumerated and placed into a box. Ben signed for the accuracy of the list. As the shackles were being reapplied, the computer operator began a singsong recitation of rules governing inmate conduct at the Federal Transportation Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Ben understood without being told that he had no questions about this information.

With the reception formalities concluded, a different set of guards arrived. They shuffled him down a series of gated corridors into a cellblock alive, even at this hour, with the noise and stink of prisoners. Solid metal doors lined both sides of the dimly lit hall. One of them buzzed open as the entourage approached. Ben entered the empty cell when prompted and stood in the far corner of it facing the wall in accordance with facility procedure. He maintained this position while the chains were removed and did not attempt to turn until the door lock sounded behind him.

Thanks primarily to a high ceiling, Ben’s new quarters were more spacious than the punishment closet his mother had used. An overhead light in a wire cage illuminated a strip of louvers in the back wall, a concrete bench/bed, and a metal toilet bowl. A reinforced Plexiglas observation port in the door had been covered from outside.  He recognized the setup from his days as a nursing assistant on the psych ward. No mattress, nothing that could be moved, no brackets or knobs from which to hang an improvised noose. The psych patients used to complain about having to sleep on plastic mats in the seclusion room. He wished they knew how well they had it.

On Wednesday afternoon, May 14, Ben’s preliminary file appeared on the desk of Assistant Deputy Attorney General Matthew “Mutt” Smithers, who flipped through its pages with flagging enthusiasm. Subject Major, now permanently misidentified as Majir, Benjamin Al in Bureau of Prisons records thanks to the incompetence of a clerk at the Federal Transportation Center, remained in Oklahoma City pending Mutt’s review. Major, he read, had been born and raised in the vicinity of Springfield, Oregon. Mother, Fabiana Maria Major, currently hospitalized following prescription drug overdose, prognosis guarded. Father, Alan Liam Major, vagrant, recently deceased; body unclaimed at morgue in Tacoma, Washington. Siblings, none. Prior criminal record, one juvenile conviction for destruction of federal property (mailbox) with explosive devise. One count shoplifting, dismissed. Employment history spotty. And so forth. Another anarchist wannabe inflated by FIST to make the agency look good. The case had all the sex appeal of a new zit. Mutt reminded himself that diligence in plowing through such dreck would eventually be rewarded, but a real national security beef could make things so much easier. He tossed Major on the pile. Learning to wait in line would be good for the creep.

In August, Smithers was still wasting away shoveling flyspecks when his boss, the Iron Maiden, Deputy AG Seglinda Heil, invited him to a private meeting, reference the secure query on Majir she had received from SMITE.COM, the Special Military Intelligence Technical Encampments Command. Mutt retrieved the perp’s jacket from Records with all the excitement and trepidation befitting a summons from on high. Majir/Major, he read nervously, had been returned to Chicago and given permission to lawyer up. Plea negotiations were underway. Mutt called Cook County to assure himself that the suspect remained in custody. Then, thanking God for public defenders, he sat back and reread the file, carefully. It did contain hints, but they were so slight he’d dismissed them before; the explosives charge, the unaccounted time in Eugene, the history of poor socialization and unstable living conditions. The idea that such an obvious screw-up could be a player rattled him. But a request for information from SMITE, the shadowy military branch in charge of Camp Delta and the Pentagon’s other low-profile offshore prison facilities, left room for no other interpretation. He reminded himself that the most dangerous terrorists weren’t those who advertised their faces on Al Jazeera.

That afternoon, Mutt pressed the elevator UP button with a flourish and strode confidently toward his appointment with destiny on the twenty-second floor. His documentation looked good. He had caught the errors made by Cook County, FIST, and Oklahoma City. He had entered Majir/Major’s information in the appropriate databases, had remembered to take precautions against bail, and had cogently argued the merits as they were known at the time. All he could think was, you just never knew.

Benjamin A. Major’s overburdened public defender, Eileen Sternberg, discovered that her client had disappeared from the Cook County Jail just after Labor Day. Attempts to locate him hit a national security stonewall. Ms. Sternberg updated the information she’d already sent the ACLU and took time she didn’t have to make an Amnesty International report. Her secretary called Fabiana Major’s social worker at the care home. Until Benjamin resurfaced again, it was all she could do.
 
Ben returned to the Federal Transportation Center in Oklahoma City a changed individual. He had learned the ropes of incarceration and had nothing to say when Assistant Deputy AG Smithers, the man whose signature had been controlling him from afar, finally appeared in person, flanked by federal marshals. The almighty Smithers was a pasty dough ball stuffed into a too-tight suit, a briefcase in one hand and a Styrofoam cup of coffee in the other. Sensing Ben’s lack of respect, Smithers skipped the pleasantries. In the raspiest Dirty Harry he could muster, he accused Ben of being anarchist scum. Between glares meant to intimidate, the poseur sipped theatrically at his coffee, only to spill half of it down his shirt when Ben unexpectedly shifted forward in his chair. A marshal looked Ben back while the Assistant Deputy AG dabbed frantically with the fake handkerchief from his jacket pocket. When he finished, Smithers re-cinched the ruin of his stubby necktie, His eyes narrowed to murderous slits. With a practiced swipe of the hand he produced a magnum document from his briefcase and slapped it onto the table with a ringing detonation. The quizzical expression that froze on Ben’s face gratified Smithers immensely. He pressed the attack, informing Ben that custody was being transferred to the Department of the Navy. He hissed a promise to put in a good word in return for the names of West Coast dissidents. The ludicrousness of the scene overcame Ben’s shock. Quietly and without bodily movement, he told Smithers to go fuck himself. Smithers glanced from one of his bodyguards to the other, jazzed to the max. The marshals crossed their arms and stared at the floor in embarrassment. Ben couldn’t fathom why the deluded freak was getting off on him but abandoned any notion that Smithers had a clue about what the Navy wanted with him in South Carolina.
 
In fact, Deputy AG Heil had sent Smithers to answer that very question and to obtain any other information which might be of value to her in the cutthroat game of bureaucratic advancement. She read Mutt’s report with disappointment, unaware that Smithers never had a chance. Details of the request for referral of Subject Majir, Ben Al, were available only at the Cyclops level of security clearance. To be Cyclops cleared was to “get a cyanide molar” in the envious whisperings of Senators and presidential cabinet members not so honored. It didn’t exist at Seglinda Heil’s meager level of clearance. Neither did SMITE Camp Zulu, from which the referral request had originated.
 
Camp Zulu, an aging freighter stationed in international waters, had been reconfigured as floating prison space for ranking Al Qaeda and allied Asian operatives. Camp Zulu was tasked to identify links between the international Islamic conspiracy and American terrorist groups. Commander John Z. “Zach” Smith, Camp Zulu’s Commandant, had been picking up only noise and last year’s hits from his guests until a pair of Indonesian Ali’s recognized Majir’s name from a list of anarchists. The information required corroboration, but Zach had a feeling. These Ali’s had been among Camp Zulu’s first customers. They were well versed in the penalties for false statement.

Zach’s counterpart in Charleston, Commander John K. Smith, of Domestic SMITE Camp Kilo, perused his orders for the interrogation of Majir and smelled snafu. The bastards hadn’t included an enemy combatant designation. Without it, Commander Smith, Kenny to his friends, wasn’t about to employ DOM.SMITE’s technical expertise. Failure to obtain complete documentation of orders had burned too many good officers, particularly in dirty wars. And he really wondered whether the White House had enough to go on. To characterize Majir’s history of prior acts as thin, grossly overstated the record. The unsubstantiated allegations boiled down to statements that Subject was to have been the Oregon contact had the Indonesians succeeded in entering the United States. It was obvious to Kenny that Zach was drawing to a naked pair of Ali’s. When the Administration surprised him by granting Majir’s status, Kenny cabled Camp Zulu, double or nothing on the Key limes and Jamaican rum.
  
Alcoholic parents have their drawbacks, but Ben praised the Blessed Virgin for his when, after languishing for weeks in the Charleston brig, the John Smiths came for him. They put a bag over his head and moved him to what they called an interrogation cell, a windowless crate so small that conventional sitting or standing was impossible even for a small adult like Ben. They stripped him naked and locked him inside. Time passed in cycles of overheating and chill that rapidly lost meaning. He dealt with the bodily aches, the druggings, the drenchings, the trashcan ring of clubs striking overhead, and the randomness of the John Smith’s schedule by floating back into the disoriented judgment-free present tense of his youth.
 
When the John Smiths wanted him, he was taken from his box, blindfolded, sprayed with cold water, and strapped onto a gurney. Instead of an ordinary bed of sheet steel, the Ali carts had beds of wire mesh, fresh from their own decontamination. The chemical residue stung his bare back and legs. It didn’t leave welts like his father’s belt, but the pain made it difficult for Ben to pay attention to where he was being taken. Most rides ended in a room where the same questions were asked over and over. Sometimes a new question crept into the mix or leapt like a demented child molester from the bushes along memory lane. But Liam and Fabiana’s training had instilled a certain toughness in their son. Frights and provocations didn’t dull the acuity of his ear for subtle inflections and speech patterns. It enabled Ben to guess the right answers to many of the John Smiths’ questions.

Ben’s confessional skills, once despaired of by the priests in Springfield, blossomed with the assistance of Ali group therapy. Whenever the John Smiths thought Ben had lied to them or were displeased with his effort during questioning, they put a football-type helmet on him, one that had wires coming from it and a faceplate like a giant ping-pong ball. It was hot in there and reeked of rotting sweat. Instead of wheeling him back to his box, they left him in an area where he could hear and smell the terror of other liars. Speakers inside the helmet played snippets of music, never whole tunes, at violently fluctuating volumes. Ben recognized Metallica, the theme from Barney, and Celine Dion. Sometimes he could hear himself screaming, sometimes not. Sometimes, he thought, the screams might be coming from inside his head. Whenever he got sleepy a red strobe light flashed so brilliantly in the faceplate that it didn’t matter whether his eyes were closed. Therapy sessions continued until he lapsed into an unarousable state of unconsciousness. Willing himself to pass out didn’t work. Until the last molecule of adrenalin had been wrung from him, blankness refused admittance. Then, and only then, could he expect to reawaken in the comparative comfort of his box.

Cooperation became Ben’s business. He ratted out eleven people he didn’t know and stayed out of trouble by avoiding the temptation to say more than the John Smiths believed to be true at any given time. They said one thing and then another; he had to be cautious. Somewhere he’d read that believing a lie made it more convincing, so between questionings Ben devoted himself to committing the evolving storylines to memory. He worked on this until he became what the John Smiths told him he was. Behind the smokescreen of his miserable life, Ben had turned against his country. Probably funded by high rollers in the methamphetamine business---he had never known for sure and hadn’t asked---Ben discovered that he had functioned as an anarchist dispatcher, codenamed Ben Al Majir. He had facilitated the eco-terrorist group Banana Slugfest and the anti-globalization Dead Trotskys, coordinating their subversive activities under the direction of Al Qaeda’s Asian division. Ben tried to keep his admiration for Banana Slugfest’s wild man, Howler, secret, but the John Smiths got that out of him too. Moon Tiger usually got the credit for Slugfest actions, but Howler was the go-to guy when an action demanded real balls. Ben didn’t give a damn about the Trotskys or Indonesians, but he hoped the Slugfest never got caught. From the way the John Smiths wavered on the subject, he didn’t think they had.

Ben was mistaken. Howler had been arrested in March 2004. Moon and Crystal Waters evaded authorities for three additional months but surrendered peacefully at an Operation Click It or Ticket checkpoint outside of Bellingham, Washington. Federal, Colorado, Washington State, and Whatcom County spokespersons held competing news conferences at which the three were identified as suspects in two high profile investigations. During February 2003, the premium gasoline at a filling station near Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado had been compromised, destroying the engines of fifteen vehicles owned by ranking NORAD officers. Property losses totaled 4.25 million dollars. Claims for emotional distress and loss of consortium were expected to run to the tens of millions. The Banana Slugfest trio was also suspected of sabotage at the Denver Federal Center. Its sewage lines had been blocked with cement. Prosecutors cited the cooperation of a source in an unrelated terrorist investigation with providing the break in both cases. Links between Banana Slugfest, illegal drug manufacturers, and Asian extremist groups remained under investigation.
 
Back at Camp Zulu, Commander John Z. Smith savored the fruits of Al Majir’s confession with a pitcher of Cuba Librés. Kenny’s payoff for the lost bet, two cases of excellent small batch Jamaican rums and real Key limes, bespoke honor in defeat. Zach had closed out his end of the investigation by returning his Indonesian Ali’s to their homeland. He couldn’t remember whether they’d be hanged or shot. Whichever it was, disposing of played-out Islamic nationals was a snap. Al Majir, on the other hand, had to be routed through Guantanamo Bay. But since Gitmo remained off limits for the detention of American citizens, Kenny would spend months in the Byzantine process of covert citizenship revocation. That particular misfortune, Zach smirked, couldn’t have been visited upon a more appropriate victim than his anal friend, Kenny. The Department of Justice required a blizzard of forms sufficient to support both prosecution and credible deniability. If pressed, Justice had to be able to prove that, although a functionary might have been marginally aware of Al Majir, the Department itself knew nothing about the case. The secret tribunal hearing the matter would have to be similarly shielded. Zach poured a fresh drink and allowed himself another chuckle at Kenny’s expense.

Al Majir eventually became the first former American transferred to Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay. There he was confined in a standard open-air kennel where his adjustment process could be monitored by PsyOps psychologists. Subject relearned the appropriate use of clothing after a few days but demonstrated severe impairment in his interactions with the Ali’s in adjoining cages. The Muslims purposely frightened him by snarling and pulling his hair. They urinated on him while he slept. Subject’s retaliatory skills improved over the course of ninety-day observation, primarily through the tactic of disrupting the prayers of his tormenters. Pod Bravo’s Marine guards cheered this sign of progress. In their estimation, Al Majir deserved to be shot, but no American, ex or otherwise, deserved to be pissed on by Arabs.
 
At the conclusion of the study period, PsyOps released the subject for repatriation. Ben and four other Ali’s were given civilian clothes and put aboard the routine Global Air Support Services flight that ferried men and supplies between Gitmo and the mainland. For once there were no handcuffs, leg irons, or hoods. GASS cabin stewards in powder blue jumpsuits showed the prisoners to a compartment behind the turboprop’s cockpit and offered them seats on a bench where they were restrained only by waist chain. The GASS men had themselves a little fun by offering Ben an Arabic magazine. He accepted, glorying in the muscle memory of opening it and holding it on his lap. The joke about the writing went over his head.

Thus occupied, Ben hardly noticed the stewards’ departure or the thundering vibration of the C-27 Spartan’s engines. The plane had been aloft for several minutes when the sliding compartment door opened to admit one of the GASS men. He leaned to the ear of the prisoner sitting beside Ben and said something to him. The Ali nodded excitedly as his waist chain was released. Smiling broadly, he scrambled out into the cargo area with the steward. The door slid shut only to reopen a few minutes later. This time the attendant spoke to Ben. “Bet it’s been a long time since you’ve seen the ocean, son. You wouldn’t believe how pretty it is down there this morning. When we get back to Florida, you’re history. So, come on, you might as well have something nice to remember before they throw away the key on you.”

Ben also responded enthusiastically. He emerged from the sweaty compartment into the noise and wind of the cargo bay. He walked tentatively between the pallets of containers, maintaining his balance by holding onto the cargo nets that secured them. The steward tapped Ben’s arm, directing his attention to an open door under the wing. Ben looked up. For the first time in his life he saw the almost iridescent blues and greens of the Bahamian Bank. “Spectacular, isn’t it?” the main shouted. “I never get tired of that. Come on up here and get a lung full of salt air.” Ben approached the opening and drew a deep breath. Over the engine exhaust fumes he thought he smelled the sea. “You know they took away your citizenship, don’t you, Ali?” the man yelled. Ben didn’t remember.  “Time for deportation. Ali oops!” A jolt in the side turned his muscles to jelly. He fell, disappointed to see only a clear sky as the plane shrank in the distance. But then the sea spun back into view. Ben rejoiced, drinking it in.

Bahamian fishermen found a shoeless human leg floating near South Andros Island. They took off their hats in honor of the Cuban who had died for his dream of freedom. They did not, however, take the leg aboard. Theirs was a poor fishing village. It could ill afford the expense of burying all the bodies that had been washing ashore recently. Conditions under Castro must be truly dreadful.

Ben’s passing went entirely unnoticed by Ben Al Majir, the terrorist, whose career in mayhem was only beginning. The government’s case against Howler, Crystal Waters, and Moon Tiger was the first to suffer the effects of his treachery. Unlike Ben Major, the alleged Banana Slugfest members obtained top-drawer legal counsel. The defense demanded to know the identity of the prosecution’s secret witness and insisted that he or she be produced. In a court battle spanning five years and two arguments before United States Supreme Court, the prosecution was forced to give ground, beginning with Al Majir’s name. In a rearguard attempt to bolster its position, DOJ created a résumé second to none for Ben Al Majir. As “Terror’s Switchboard Operator”, Al Majir had known almost everyone in the international terrorist community. His position at the intersection of domestic and foreign extremist groups made him an asset that simply could not be compromised on grounds of national security. Further, Al Majir might reveal the government’s methods, enabling his former associates to gain an advantage in the war on terror. The plea didn’t wash. DOJ found itself with the choice of producing him or dropping its charges against the Slugfest defendants. (By this time, it may be recalled, Congress had prohibited the shifting of civilian cases to military jurisdictions. Criminal justice would be served with the full complement of Sunday china and cloth napkins or not at all.) DOJ was stuck. Moon Tiger, Howler, and Crystal Waters walked. The liberal press loved it.

Seizing on the government’s description of Al Majir’s pivotal role in the international terror network, other defense teams requested interviews with him. Terror’s Switchboard Operator, their briefs reasoned, should recognize his own alleged former customers. Denying defense counsel the right to interview Al Majir unfairly penalized defendants regardless of any evidence the prosecution might put forward. Jail doors swung open nationwide and, in some instances, overseas as well. It became almost impossible to hold suspects whose alleged terroristic activities began before May 2003. Through extrajudicial means, the Department of Homeland Security mitigated some of the hell Al Majir had in store for terrified Americans.

But not all of it. As of this writing the list of calamities attributable to Al Majir continues to mount. Pipelines carrying water from the Colorado River to Southern California were sabotaged, bringing San Diego and surrounding cities to their knees for weeks. Graffiti near the ruptured pipes depicted fists with bananas in place of extended middle fingers. On the Fourth of July, a radioactive “dirty bomb”, composed of used prostate cancer implants and other medical waste, exploded on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The “Airs of Unkle Al”, a previously unknown group, took responsibility for the blast. Off-site automation of the financial markets allowed them to reopen on schedule, but investor confidence plummeted. Half a trillion dollars of market value vanished in less than a week. And just last month, on a PhoenixAir flight over Albuquerque, air marshal Brenda Patton was forced to shoot a disgruntled former Assistant Deputy Attorney General who stormed the cockpit in a dispute over peanuts.

Go figure.

—Michael Hopping
copyright © 2005 all rights reserved

 

 

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