Democrats and Gothics

17 June 2005
In a forthright 16-year-old girl from Queens, writes the NYT‘s Nina Bernstein, the FBI “met unsettling opinions and teenage defiance.” Only one thing to do, of course — kidnap the kid, refuse to tell her parents where she is for two weeks, hold her without formal charges for seven months, and then deport her to a country where she can’t speak the language and can’t practice her religion. Only, “deport” is not quite the right word: Statespeak is “voluntary departure,” a phrase that reminds us of that old South African slapstick in which prisoners officially “threw themselves” out of windows.

There’s more innovative language from the FBI: its imprisonment of the girl (“investigation”) was “not the disruption of a [terrorist] plot” but “a pre-emptive move against potential candidates for recruitment.”

You got that? Don’t even think about a crime. Don’t even think about thinking about a crime some day in the future. Because the FBI is on the case, monitoring… teenage girl’s diaries. And they don’t like what they’re finding. “‘The F.B.I. tried to say I didn’t have a life – like, I wasn’t the typical teenager,’ Tashnuba said bitterly, fingering her long Muslim dress. ‘They thought I was anti-American because I didn’t want to compromise, but in my high-school ethics class we had Communists, Democrats, Republicans, Gothics – all types. In all our classes, we were told, “You speak up, you give your opinion, and you defend it.”‘”

“Gothics,” indeed — that might be just the right term for this morbidly perverse investigation of a teenage girl that mocked the faith to which she’d turned as “a refuge from her parents’ marital rifts and fragile reconciliations.”

Bernstein’s depiction of that faith is the best thing about this terrifying story. Leaving aside the main facts of the story — the evolution of the F.B.I. into what can now be called, without hyperbole, “thought police” — it’s brilliantly nuanced portrait of the faith of a pious young girl, the intermingling of rebellion and woundedness, idealism and a desire for friends, intellect and passion, American ideas and the search for authenticity. Bernstein’s description of the girl’s beliefs qualify this piece as some of the best daily religion journalism we’ve seen in awhile. The facts of the story make it the scariest.