Shakir Baloch’s seven-month detention inside the United States ended in a voluntary deportation agreement that he eagerly accepted. The native Pakistani returned to Canada, where he had been naturalized and where his daughter and wife lived.

My noon interview with Baloch, scheduled on a dreary Monday last December, started an hour late. Baloch asked that we first ride the bus to see an attorney who could provide a letter of invitation that would allow a sick friend in Pakistan to come to Canada for treatment. On the bus, he inched toward the driver to confirm that we were on the right route, a gesture he repeated several times. On a connecting bus, he asked over and over for the route number, even though it was visible everywhere.

He had lost twenty pounds in detention, but when we met, Baloch was no longer slender. His brown plaid shirt protruded clear over the waistline of his corduroy pants. His face’s somber architecture was plump and brown once again, his hair short and orderly. His moustache had returned. He is a man of near-average height, although a slump when he walks and sits makes him appear shorter.

The attorney’s secretary told Baloch to come back later that afternoon to pick up the letter. Walking out into the frigid wind, he turned to me, “Where would you like to go?” His body rotated, quickly to the left toward the McDonalds, then to the right toward the Taco Bell.

Baloch asked me, “Do you think they will lift the 10-year bar?”

Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” blared in Taco Bell, and I strained to hear Baloch. His voice is breathy, with a soft lilt and glide. He is quite audible over the phone, yet out in the world, he struggles to be heard. He told me that he was accused of being “prepared for interrogation” because of the serenity of his voice and manner.

We later sat in the food court of the Scarborough Town Centre, a mall where he often spends his days. He began to speak about the detention. Then he grew quiet for several minutes, looking away toward the food court’s paned glass ceiling before speaking again.

“I remember we were in the MDC,” he said, referring to Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center,

and they had to come, the guards, early in the morning, ask if we want to go to recreation. And I want for recreation. It was a very small window where you can see the outside world. . . . [it was] very cold there . . . so literally [other inmates] don’t want their recreation. Most time, nobody would ever go to the recreation.

Baloch’s eyes closed abruptly; head dropping down, his chin smacking neatly against his plaid shirt. Surrounded by the mild mania of Christmas-gift shoppers and teenagers rejoicing in their school day’s end, Baloch appeared to sleep for a few seconds before raising his head again.

“Just relaxing,” he said.

On September 19, 2001, Baloch became one of 762 illegal immigrants detained in a federal dragnet in response to 9/11. According to court documents, a cadre of agents representing the FBI, INS, NYPD, and the Department of Labor interrogated Baloch in his apartment that evening. He admitted to being in the country illegally and possessing false documents under the alias Faisal Turk. Baloch was one of eighty-four detainees sent to MDC, where they were held in a “special housing unit” to separate them from the rest of the prison population. According to a 2003 report by the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General, the unit represented nothing short of “the most restrictive conditions possible.” Baloch would spend five months in maximum security before being cleared of any involvement in 9/11 or terrorism. The reward for his clearance was a six-week stint in general population and a 10-year bar from reentering the United States after deportation.

Baloch is acutely aware that he resides in the interstitial realm of the Bush Administration-9/11 injury universe. But his story is no cause célèbre, as, for example, is that of Maher Arar, a Canadian engineer who was detained after a layover in New York and sent to Syria, where he slept in an undersized cell and was tortured for a year as part of the Bush administration’s extraordinary rendition program. Arar was awarded roughly $10 million as part of a settlement with the Canadian government, and his suit against former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft was last heard in federal appellate court.

Baloch is a victim of a policy that, pre-9/11, would have been unthinkable, and for which the human consequences are both violent and enduring.

Nor is Baloch crippled by the terror of indefinite detention—as Guantànamo detainees are—or the experience of outright sadism at Abu Ghraib. He can ride public transportation and down his cheese fries at a fast food chain in the middle of the day without thinking twice.

Nonetheless, Baloch is a victim of a policy that, pre-9/11, would have been unthinkable, and for which the human consequences are both violent and enduring. While Baloch has been on 60 Minutes, written about in a half-dozen major newspapers, and profiled by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, there are few cries of injustice. The coverage has done little to make his story any less obscure.

The lack of widespread outrage for his suffering and that of detainees like him conveys the troubling message that their detention was a little more acceptable than the others, the human fallout a little more tolerable. But the agony of detainees like Baloch is only part of the tragedy. The American relationship to the Muslim world has singular importance, and the collective narrative of indifference surrounding the 9/11 detainees suggests serious impediments to a shared future.

When Baloch returned to Canada, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Macdonald Scott—formerly a paralegal with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, which advocated for Baloch’s release—recalled:

He was meek, he was frightened, he didn’t know what he would do financially. He was on welfare because he couldn’t get himself to work. He didn’t smile. His posture wasn’t straight. He would make appointments and not show up.

Scott was one of the first people to work on behalf of Baloch and helped bring his case to the attention of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a civil rights organization in New York that currently represents him in a class action lawsuit against the federal government. Later Scott added, “He’s just a quiet, gentle man.”

The word Baloch uses to describe himself since his release is “lazy.” He blames the failure of his marriage (his wife has divorced him) on his “sluggishness.” Before our meeting, he told me over the phone, “I am afraid I cannot work hard that much because I feel tired.” Baloch relied on social assistance and disability payments from the Canadian government at first, and has since lived off a combination of earnings from his work as a physician in Pakistan, profits from the selling of family properties, and family assistance. “I made a cab license, I haven’t worked at cab yet, but if I have to, I will,” he said. On an average day, he will wake up at 8:00 a.m. but not shower before noon.

Born in Pakistan, Baloch, forty-seven, grew up with an optimistic view of the West in a family that embraced democracy and liberal ideas: “I always wanted to live in Western countries because the values there, human rights, and I thought that the liberties were strong there.” The second of six children, he saw his father, Hussain, a lifelong civil servant, become the deputy commissioner of the Balochistan province in the 1970s. His older brother, Sabir, was an elected member of the parliament with the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), Pakistan’s ruling party today. Both Baloch and Sabir share the view that their father, as Sabir told me, prayed “five times a day—but [that is] not the point—he was not the type of religious person, never imposed his ideas.”

Sabir told me that his father’s progressive nature was most evident in his support of women’s rights. “He was more broad-minded than the rest of the people in our family. He was not against education of the woman. . . . He never forced my sisters, or [other] women of my family to cover,” a reference to the practice of veiling. Both brothers added that their father also did not protest their marriages to Ahmadi women. The Ahmadiyya are a strain of reformist Islam born from the messianic declarations of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in the late nineteenth century and since branded heretical. Its practitioners have suffered an atavistic brand of religious persecution over the past several decades in Pakistan. A 1974 constitutional amendment established the legal definition of Islam in order to ostracize the sect. Sabir claimed his father’s tolerance also extended to his Shia sons-in-law, despite the family’s Sunni heritage.

Baloch sees in Pakistan a simple struggle between the quiet progressive majority and the louder immoderate alternative:

If you go to Pakistan, if there is a democracy, if there was election, most liberal party won. Most liberal, most progressive, to me it means that Pakistan is not going after the religious mullahs. The people of that country, they are not radical.

Although his view of the PPP as the purveyor of democracy ignores the fact that it has been a Bhutto-family dynasty since its inception, stories of his childhood spell a cloistered and privileged youth steeped in genuine liberal values.

“Overzealous law enforcement activities” and a “general government panic that swept up a lot of people who were innocent” were the ways John Parachini, Director of the Intelligence Policy Center at the Rand Corporation in Washington, D.C., described post-9/11 U.S. detention policy.

Baloch studied literature and poetry while attending college in Karachi. He was particularly taken with the nineteenth-century Indian-Urdu stylist Mirza Ghalib. A self-described sinner, Ghalib stood for an enlightened brand of pleasure-seeking in which the quest for joy and gratification leads one to a deeper understanding of humanity.

Under parental pressure to be a doctor, especially from his father, Baloch attended Bolan Medical College in Quetta. After graduating he met Tahira, the sister of his sister-in-law and a Canadian citizen. From that point, the moveable forces of his personal life—his 1986 marriage to Tahira; the 1987 birth of his daughter, Sonia, and the family’s 1989 move to Canada—met the immovable depression in the Canadian medical field. Baloch could not find work as a doctor and decided to relocate to the United States in the hope of attaining a residency. He enrolled in a certification program in ultrasound technology at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital (now New York-Presbyterian).

When Baloch muses about his pre-9/11 New York routine, his uncertain tone becomes quick and assured:

Before [my detention], when I was in New York, in 1991, 1992, I use to go to Copacabana, and you know, clubbing, and I used to drink and I still drink. I mean, I used to go clubbing, I had friends there. I had a friend, her name was Larissa, she was Jew.

He and Larissa attended the same certification program. Her last name escaped him.

Baloch returned to Canada in 1997 when his daughter was diagnosed with Type I diabetes, but a persistent inability to work pushed him back to the United States. This time he took on the alias of Faisal Kurd and worked as a limousine driver while studying for the U.S. medical-licensing exam.

Baloch described the first time he saw his father and brother in Pakistan after his detention and deportation. “When I went there, [my father] was smiling. He told me ‘you were in the wrong place, wrong time.’ He didn’t talk too much about it with me, he was just advising me ‘to go on with your life.’” Sabir’s response was similar, “‘Yes,’ he was telling me ‘don’t get depressed,’ he was telling me to ‘go on with your life, you have to have a life, you know.’” None of the men even gestured at the rhetoric of antagonism and defeatism and the fantasy of suicidal violence against the West that fuels fundamentalist splinters of political Islam, including groups in Pakistan.

About his daughter, a recent graduate of Humber College in Toronto, Baloch says: “I was at the wrong place, wrong time, but [the United States] as a country, I don’t want her to take the wrong image. I don’t want her to take a very negative view. She may get a job there.”

“Overzealous law enforcement activities” and a “general government panic that swept up a lot of people who were innocent” were the ways John Parachini, Director of the Intelligence Policy Center at the Rand Corporation in Washington, D.C., described post-9/11 U.S. detention policy.

According to the 2003 report of the Office of the Inspector General, the FBI allocated 7,000 personnel to a 9/11 investigation, known as PENTTBOM, within days of the attacks. Agents garnered 96,000 tips in the first week after 9/11, many lacking any probative value—someone’s odd working hours, a perceived increase in Arabs employed in a supermarket. Of the 762 people detained, 491 of them were in New York.

The 9/11 detention scheme of “hold until clear” used criminal allegations and, in the case of illegal aliens, immigration law to hold the detainees until they were cleared. Though the FBI was responsible for the initial assessment of culpability—using a tiered-framework of “high interest,” “of interest,” and “interest undetermined”—the report stated that the assessment “was based on little or no concrete information tying the detainee to the September 11 attacks or terrorism.”

At the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings held shortly after the report’s release, the Justice Department’s Inspector General, Glenn Fine, singled out the New York investigation:

If an agent searching for a particular person on a PENTTBOM lead arrived at a location and found other individuals who were in violation of their immigration status, those individuals were detained and considered to be arrested in connection with the PENTTBOM investigation.

He later added that the FBI’s application of the interest designations “was, in many cases, tenuous.” The report cited a special agent stating: “All of the aliens . . . would be arrested on immigration charges and treated as ’of interest’ to the September 11th investigation because there was no way to tell who might be an associate or the subject of the lead.”

The initial classification determined which prison facility the detainee would be held in and under what security conditions. But because the Federal Bureau of Prisons was receiving so little information from the FBI regarding those arrested, it opted to treat them all as high-security detainees.

This trickle-down escalation of risk assessment also caused tensions between the FBI and the INS. Only 3 percent of the detainees were cleared within three weeks of arrest. The average detention time was eighty days; many detentions lasted much longer. According to immigration law, the INS can detain an alien for up to 90 days, with an additional 90 days if necessary, in order to remove them from the country. INS attorneys were concerned about the possibility of increased legal challenges since prolonged detentions were used for the purpose of investigating potential terrorism links rather than facilitating removals. The FBI contended that investigations connected with clearing detainees were legally allowable under the ninety-day detention standard. The Office of Legal Counsel—offering a definition of torture and an understanding of Geneva Convention application that exceeded the bounds of legal comprehension, precedent, and credibility—issued an opinion to resolve the dispute, siding with the FBI.

Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, Director of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights at Penn State University-Dickinson School of Law, wondered, “Was immigration law an effective tool in finding potential terrorists?” The answer, she said, is no:

The vast majority if not all [detainees] were in violation of administrative laws, but not something deeper. . . . You had a situation with the hold and clearance that the FBI imposed on the INS, INS attorneys weren’t able to articulate a justification for keeping the detainees.

Many of the policy decisions were never communicated in writing.

One significant policy response came in a 2004 memo from Asa Hutchinson, then the Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security with the Department of Homeland Security. It directed personnel at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which replaced the INS in March 2003, to review independently the circumstances of each terrorism-related FBI detention. Nevertheless, the conventional forty-eight-hour timeframe for decisions to detain or release aliens stretched for terror detainees to “as soon as practicable.”

Would the 9/11 detention policy have a chilling effect on intelligence gathering with Muslims following a future attack? According to Parachini, “Yeah, no question about it.”

While attention surrounding the 2003 report’s findings centered on the egregious and titillating details of rights deprivation and abuse, one fundamental point received little if any notice: in the wake of the most devastating attack ever committed by a foreign actor on U.S. territory, the FBI marshaled a number of personnel that, though substantial on its face, seemed disproportionate to the gravity of the event and the enormity of the task.

When former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch asked Fine whether he believed the FBI had had the resources to clear the detainees adequately, Fine responded:

I do believe that the FBI had resources, had they made it a priority. I do note that they devoted enormous resources to the task, but the FBI is a large organization. It has approximately 28,000 employees, about 11,000 agents, and I believe that there was nothing that should have had a higher priority than the terrorism investigation at the time. I believe that had they allocated, as a management priority, additional resources to the task, it could have been done.

Fine also testified that it took the FBI months to read CIA clearance checks of detainees and that the unhurried pace of clearance affected their ability to investigate leads properly.

Considering how the detention policy was actually executed, the “wrong place, wrong time” view that Baloch has come to adopt may have even more merit than he knew. According to court documents, Baloch was initially investigated because of suspicion involving a roommate, not Baloch himself.

As many analysts have pointed out, the high degree of integration between legal and illegal immigrants in ethnic neighborhoods, including Arab and Muslim neighborhoods, means that the best sources of information about the people who come into a community from abroad are its leaders and members; often, local law enforcement must rely on them for intelligence. Would the 9/11 detention policy have a chilling effect on intelligence gathering with Muslims following a future attack? According to Parachini, “Yeah, no question about it.”

The intelligence strategy reflects only one type of post-9/11 policy failure. Following the attacks, the United States recognized that moderate Muslim governments would be integral to its foreign policy. But they would be moderate on American terms. At home, too, post-9/11 policy turned American officials into the judges of whether a person was a Muslim moderate: personal history, experience, and conviction did not count. For detainees like Baloch, individual ideology and a lifetime of choice had no social currency. In early interrogations, Baloch’s personal story was reduced to a doomed alibi, a tableau of anti-jihadist bona fides. Baloch recalls the interrogators

asking me, ‘Oh, you hate Jewish people, you hate Hindus.’ I told them ‘I have Jewish friend in New York. I drink, you know, I drink hard liquor.’ I am not saying it is a very good thing but I used to do that. And I told them that my brother was in the parliament, the Pakistani progressive party.

They tell me ‘You don’t like the Shias.’ I say how do you know that? I said, ‘did you know that they are my family?’

The details of Baloch’s detention saga offer a parade of horrors, all substantiated as abusive conditions at MDC by the Office of the Inspector General’s report: virtual solitary confinement, twenty-three hours of lockdown, physical abuse at the hands of MDC officers (Baloch states that he was slammed against the wall), verbal abuse (for Baloch, this included rantings of “fucking Muslim terrorist” and threats of deportation to Pakistan instead of Canada), denial of contact with attorneys and family members for weeks, and sleep deprivation by use of noise and lighting.

In a 2003 speech at the UN, Baloch said:

My illegal imprisonment in the U.S. was a shattering experience. In a flash, my life was destroyed, and I was terrorized for seven months simply because I am from Pakistan. I feel terrified, suffer from flashbacks, anxiety and insecurity. I have lost my self-confidence and most importantly, my ability to concentrate. My work requires a lot of reading, which is of course impossible to do if I can’t concentrate. When I moved to New York, I thought the United States was a democracy with civil liberties for all. What I experienced was the brutality of a ruthless dictatorship.

Baloch reserves his greatest anger for the Bush administration’s lack of accountability or contrition over its detention policy. But when he speaks, one hears less the anger at what had been done to him than resignation over who he has become. That tension draws the exhausting contours of the last seven years.

After weeks of discussion about the circumscribed nature of his life, his battle with depression, and his inability to concentrate, it was only around the prospect of a vacation in the Dominican Republic that the slightest indignation arose.

“A friend of mine talked about a cheap flight to Santo Domingo,” Baloch said. “I don’t see why I can’t, what did I do?”

He asked whether the ten-year bar from entering the United States included flying over American airspace. When I told him that I didn’t have the answer, he wilted.

“Sometimes you want to go somewhere, but you can’t.”


Mark Dow, author of American Gulag, responds.