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Press Review July 25, 2002
 
Jose, Interrupted
By Matt Taibbi Browse author
 
 
Padilla: Notorious for 15 Minutes!

Padilla: Notorious for 15 Minutes!

Forget the Pledge of Allegiance. Forget Elizabeth Smart. Forget the new Bills uniforms, even. Where in the world is Jose Padilla?

In a sequence of events that should turn every American literally white with terror before the awesome power of our media apparatus, a former gang member-turned-would-be terrorist was dug up out of a pit after being held illegally for a month, offered to the entire world as public enemy number one for about ten minutes, and then tossed back into purgatory, apparently to be officially forgotten for the rest of eternity.

Ask anyone, even the people you're sitting with right now, what associations come to mind when you mention the name Jose Padilla. In 100 cases out of 100, the answer you'll get will run along the following lines: terrorist, suspected Al-Qaeda member, ringleader in a plot to explode a "dirty bomb" in Washington. As for visual images, the only one ever offered for anyone to recall later on was the notorious mugshot, a single grainy picture of a clearly nonwhite person that on June 11th was plastered on the front page of every major daily newspaper in America, as a crude but chilling portrait of the Dark Threat looming over our good society.

All of this is the frightening result of the continuing union between a ruthless, space-age propaganda machine and a pliant consumer population with an attention span of about eight seconds. Because the Padilla story will never be revisited, neither the accusations we associate with his name, nor the emotional effect of the mugshot image, will ever be undone. We all bought the story -- but should we have?

Even the most cursory review of the timeline of the Padilla story reveals that, far from being a simple story of a foiled terrorist plot, this was in fact a masterpiece of orchestrated propaganda, a brilliant manipulation of the biography of a common criminal for a variety of dramatic political objectives. From Willie Horton to Iran-Contra to Watergate, the lessons of almost every major political snow job of the past quarter-century were mined to yield a bag of tricks used flawlessly and compellingly for three short weeks -- three weeks that ended with an American citizen still in jail, without any possibility of a trial, for what may be the rest of his life.

Here is a timeline of the Jose Padilla story, stretched out to cover a period slightly longer than fifteen minutes:

May 8: After returning from Pakistan, Padilla, an American of Puerto Rican descent who now calls himself Abdullah al Muhajir, is "detained" by the FBI. No charges are filed, but he is nonetheless transferred to a jail in New York, where, in clear violation of the law, he will remain in custody without a charge until June 9.

No word of Padilla's arrest is leaked to the media at this time, and there appears to be no hurry to make the matter public. He is simply an anonymous person rotting quietly behind bars. But within a few weeks, a few interesting seemingly irrelevant events coincided to seemingly push Padilla to the surface.

The first development was an earlier May 1 ruling by a New York Federal Judge named Shira Scheindlin, who on that date released a Jordanian-born college student named Osama Awadallah. Awadallah had been held in jail for three months without a charge on the grounds that he had lied to investigators about knowing one of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Scheindlin ruled that "Relying on the material witness statute to detain people who are presumed innocent under our Constitution in order to prevent potential crimes is an illegitimate use of the statute."

The judge's ruling was pretty clear -- it declared Minority Report-style policing illegal. In order to detain someone, even as a witness, Scheindlin ruled that the detention had to be in connection with a crime already committed, not one that the suspect might commit in the future.


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