The Making of a 'Terror' Tale

The man was arrested three weeks ago and ultimately charged with making "false statements"—telling authorities he had a green card when he actually does not. Lying about his immigration status was by no means angelic nor terribly bright. But press accounts this week—fueled by anonymous law enforcement speculation—made Kamran Shaikh's fairly common violation seem like breaking news of people's worst fears come true.

"Authorities probing whether Queens man is a . . . TERROR TOURIST," screamed the August 11 front cover of New York's Daily News, the scariest words conveyed in two-inch tabloid type. Shaikh was arrested July 20, when local police spotted him videotaping his surroundings near a bus depot in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina. Officials released documents about his arrest this week.

Shaikh, the married father of three toddlers, was traveling back to the family's home in Elmhurst, Queens, from a visit with relatives in Texas, says Sin Yen Ling, an attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund who is advising the family.

Ling has represented dozens of immigrants in 9-11 cases, and not one has been charged with any terrorist activity. Shaikh, laid off in June from his job at a photo shop in Manhattan, was simply indulging his hobby of filming scenery and making home movies, according to Ling. Officials have not contradicted the family's version of events.

Like pretending to have a green card, standing in the street shooting footage of commercial buildings in an American city may not have been the savviest thing for the undocumented Pakistani man to have done. But it was perfectly legal.

Ling excoriated the press for turning Shaikh's case into "a sensationalized circus."

Authorities stopped just short of uttering blatant untruths, but their ominous initial remarks fanned a media furor. "These were not your normal tourist videos. This could turn out to be something legitimate and innocent, but it's raised our suspicions, and we think there's something else going on here. We don't like the look of it," was the anonymous government quote the August 11 New York Times ran on the case.

In other words: This could be nothing, and there is no evidence that it is actually something. But we're going to speculate wildly, anyway.

The "senior law enforcement official in Washington" demanded anonymity "because of the sensitivity of the investigation," the story stated. That vague explanation typified the imprecise coverage, Ling says, that has panicked the family and infuriated their supporters. She claims that the media misstated information in ways that made the story seem far more disturbing than it really is.

For instance, she says, reports described voices in the videos as speaking Arabic, but in fact they were speaking Urdu, Shaikh's native language. That's because the speakers were family members, she says. Similarly, she claims, the "associates" of Shaikh that the Times reported as being questioned by federal agents were actually his family—wife, brother, and cousin.

Ling, who has dealt frequently with major media in representing dozens of immigrant clients since 9-11, says such alarmist reporting contributes to an overall problem of false assumptions and harassment of certain minorities.

Calmer accounts of the situation began to emerge today—essentially telling the family's side—but foraging reporters may already have done serious damage.

Take one of the two stories the News printed about Shaikh on August 11, which began: "On the streets of Elmhurst, Queens, where trees rustled in the summer wind and kids played on the sidewalk yesterday, frightened neighbors of Kamran Akhtar [the News uses a different name than the Times and the family itself] were horrified to learn that terror cops in North Carolina want to know whether he was up to no good."

One wonders what sorts of questions elicited these responses from the Shaikhs' neighbors: "This is so shattering. I have no words for this." And, "The whole world is not a safe place right now. But when you hear that this is going on right next door, you feel that you can't trust."


justice@villagevoice.com

 
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