06 September 2005

The “Terrorist” Incident at Tunney’s Pasture

This could be a sketch on Saturday Night Live, if it weren’t so pitifully tragic. According to a front page article in today’s Globe and Mail, Ahmad El Maati was arrested while attending his own wedding in Damascus, Syria, then tortured in an attempt to make him reveal information about an alleged terrorist map of Ottawa, and finally sent to Egypt to undergo further torture. He “confessed” to a fabricated plot that made absolutely no sense, especially relative to the supposed terrorist map, in order to alleviate his suffering.

The only problem is that this so-called terrorist map is actually an out-of-date, government-issued tourist map of offices in Ottawa. In fact, it is so out-of-date that many of the presumably sensitive locations on the map are now parking lots!
The Globe and Mail has learned that the map -- scrawled numbers and all -- was in fact produced and distributed by the Canadian federal government. It is simply a site map, given out to help visitors to Tunney's Pasture, a sprawling complex of government buildings in Ottawa, find their way around…There is nothing secret about the map. The existence of the nuclear facilities and the virus labs at Tunney's Pasture was never a secret. Moreover, they were gone from Tunney's Pasture long before the map aroused the suspicions of U.S. customs agents when they stopped Mr. El Maati's truck at the border at Buffalo in August of 2001. Yet in the past four years, the "terrorist map" has taken on almost mythic qualities. It has figured in various leaked accounts describing thwarted al-Qaeda plots to blow up targets in Ottawa, including the Parliament Buildings and the U.S. embassy.
Mr. El Maati was a transport driver for a trucking company, and had entered the U.S. dozens of times previously, with no problems in crossing the border. On one run south, he was driving a truck that had been used by another driver, one who regularly made deliveries to government buildings in Ottawa. That was the source of the map that U.S. Customs officials found so suspicious. All it would have taken was one call to a Canadian official to verify the origin of the map, and the innocence of both the document and Mr. El Maati. (For those who aren’t familiar with Ottawa’s geography – like Mr. El Maati himself – neither the Parliament Buildings nor the U.S. Embassy are anywhere near Tunney’s Pasture.)

While an embarrassment to U.S. Homeland (In)Security officials, and a disgrace for Canadian officials – who had several opportunities to rescue Mr. El Maati rather than feed information to his torturers, this revelation points up a more fundamental problem that is at the heart of the vast risks to security that have been created by the two governments over the past several years.

North America is primarily a visually-dominant culture, with an almost entire focus on figure – what is obviously seen. Ground, or context, is usually ignored, if it is noticed at all. But it is only via an awareness of ground that meaning is created. Without an appreciation of the context, (as opposed to the application of a figure-induced assumptive context) true meaning is lost. Instead, the matching of what is obviously seen with conceptions born in nothing but a(n often erroneous) belief allows one to create whatever meaning one wants. Ahmad El Maati, not to mention Maher Arar and Abdullah Almalki, have learned this the very hard way – through rendition to American and Canadian torture chambers, operated under license by the Syrians and Egyptians.

By focusing so obviously on what is obvious – figure – North American security officials miss the all important signs and signals of nefarious intent that occur in ground. This provides a decided advantage to the would-be terrorist, who invariably comes from a culture of ground. The practical example of this is the difference between the handling of airline passenger security by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, and security officials of Israel’s El Al Airlines. The former relies on what can be seen through intrusive snooping in luggage sans passenger; the latter on what is out of context in the passenger’s behaviours and reactions when luggage is searched in his or her presence. As the cliché goes, the Americans are always fighting the previous war.

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