In Memory of Salman Hamdani

by Jonathan Wallace

March 29, 2003

A Spectacle reader invited me to contribute some words to be read at an antiwar demonstration in Paterson, N.J., which had the parallel agenda of opposing the government's infringements of civil liberties, in particular among the Arab community. I sent the following.

I publish a web site called The Ethical Spectacle as an avocation, and that is why I have been invited to speak here, because of some things I wrote about the war. But for my living I work as an emergency medical technician and spend each day on an ambulance.

This seems to be the perfect setting to tell you about another ambulance person, Muhammad Salman Hamdani, a young Pakistani-American resident of New York City who was missing after the World Trade Center attacks. Hamdani had helped pay his way through Queens College by working as a part time EMT.

Salman, as his family called him, was a research assistant at Rockefeller University and was on his way to work on the morning of September 11. He did not have any reason to be in or near the Trade Center; his family believed that he saw the disaster from the elevated train that he took, that he went there to help, and died.

After Salman vanished, a New York newspaper published an article saying that he was under investigation for links to the terrorists who attacked the U.S. on September 11-- diverse irrelevant facts were adduced to support the supposition that Salman was a terrorist, such as the fact that he had studied chemistry, that he was a lab technician at the university. Fliers went up in his neighborhood saying that the FBI wanted to speak with him--fliers that were later said not to have been authorized by any law enforcement agency.

Imagine losing your child and then having to hear that he is under suspicion. This is what Salman's parents suffered. Six months later, Salman's body was found in the wreckage of the World Trade Center. What had happened was exactly what his family had believed: he had seen the disaster and he had gone there to help. He had life-saving skills and he went there to use them and he died.

Salman Hamdani is one of the lesser known heroes of the World Trade Center; several web sites which honor EMT's who died that day don't mention him. I wanted to bear witness to Salman's life and death. Salman Hamdani is who I would like to be: Someone who asks no questions but goes to help, no matter how intense the flames or how great the panic. That morning hundreds of thousands of people were running away--I was one of them-- and Salman ran in.

Today thousands of Americans and residents like Salman are under suspicion and under investigation and hundreds who are not citizens continue to be in endless immigration detention. Make no mistake about it, immigration detention is prison. And at least two Americans--one an Arab American, the other a convert to Islam-- are in military prisons, held without charges, denied access to lawyers or to a jury of their peers because they are thought to be linked to Al Quaeda. I have seen a lot of shit come down in my almost fifty years on earth, but--I am an optimist--I really never thought I would see a day when even American citizens were disappearing into federal custody without charges or trial.

The malevolent are too self-righteous to see it and the doubtful are too confused, but if anyone can disappear into federal custody, so could you or I. If we tolerate these abrogations of our liberties for any reason--because the towers fell on September 11 and we are fearful, because there are bad people out there seeking to kill us--then we are falling into an infantile trust of the government. The check on the system at such a moment is no longer the due process of law but simply the faith that the government which has thrown others into prison without any opportunity to clear themselves at trial will be too sensible to do the same to us. That hope is a very thin reed.

Salman illustrates for me the best about humans, but his story also illustrates the worst about us: the hostility, the suspicion that surrounded him because his name, nationality and faith were different. Today, American society has caved in under the shock of the World Trade Center attacks, while powerful opportunists have used our fear as a jumping off point for their pre-existing agenda to wage war and cancel civil liberty. At a time when a powerful few are malevolent and many more are silent and doubtful, it is left to you--you who are here today and at the other demonstrations that have taken place around the nation--to act as the counterweight. If enough of us keep doing as you are doing--bearing witness to truth and standing up for liberty--then I believe the balance will shift back again. At first the change will be barely perceptible-- you, who brought it about, will be the first to feel it. I am not saying that justice always prevails in this country, just that it has no chance of doing so without you. In dark moments I always like to remember the words of Henry David Thoreau: "The sun is but a morning star. There is more day to dawn." I am not superstitious but if I can wave any good fortune your way I want with my whole spirit to do so: Bless Salman Hamdani and bless you.