Over the course of the whole debacle, there was a lot of criticism directed against Mandeep and me — even from our purported supporters — for the way that we handled the public relations angle of our case. Much was made, particularly, of the so-called “Kafka Declaration” episode wherein, against the cool protestations of our lawyer, I had insisted on addressing the press scrum outside the courthouse, pounding my fist into the air in front of me and declaring that “this trial is an absolute farce — a farce of Kafkaesque proportions.” After I said that, Mandeep and I had all the public sympathy of Leopold and Loeb, without Darrow. They painted us as superficially-educated, presumptuous dunces; there was even an essay published, I was told, in some faculty of education on the East Coast, holding up the “Kafka Declaration” as an episode indicative of the ways in which a whole generation of youth gorged on self-esteem and laziness had drawn all their knowledge of the Canon from sideways comical references in low culture. One of the reporters had asked (seemingly without malice), “How do you mean, ‘Kafkaesque’?” and in an instant my hopes — that when people referred to a public trial as “Kafkaesque” they just meant that it was really shitty — dissipated, as my legal representation rolled her eyes in a way visible to all the news cameras. I remember very quickly pausing and looking straight out in between the heads of the sundry agents of the press, and for some reason running my pinky rapidly along the inside sill of my right nostril before saying with an upward inflection: “I mean that this trial is turning the Canadian judicial system into a cockroach, a cockroach that would be as unrecognizable to the fathers of Confederation as Gator Samsa’s reflection in the mirror was to his very own eyes.”
What people didn’t realize was that before the trial, before the whole of FreedomChunks.com and the fallout from it, the only experience I had ever had addressing more than friends and family members had been with someone else’s words, cast as the Ché Guevara/Hamlet figure in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s work put on by Marcel Herger, the son of theatrical parents who had written the opening number of the celebrated Slavoj Zizek: The Musical, “My Heart Is Absolutely Fragile.” When I met him, Marcel was two months into an eleven-month phase of indignant anti-state communism that had started as a result of his having read a Pittsburgh-based blog entry outlining the early Soviet repression of the sailors’ rebellion at Kronstadt. He had decided to put on a production of Hamlet, with a set made entirely of buckwheat-husk pillows — Sobakawa, in fact, to mark the Japanese victory over Tsarism in 1905 — and which would cast Ché Guevara as Hamlet, Castro as his uncle, and communism anthropomorphized as the Queen. Marcel himself billed it as “a searing hoisting of relevance onto the dusty words of the war-monger who penned Henry V,” and he had cast me in the lead because of his efforts to bed Becky Lau, a sweet Chinese girl from Ontario who was inseparable from me at the time of the production because, as I later learned, she thought that I was gay.
So the only time — before having to defend my legal well-being in one of the most high-profile anti-terrorism trials that Canada had ever seen — that I had ever had to send home conviction to any audience was during that four-night run of Marcel Herger’s [Commandante] Hamlet, with my gaudy fake moustache peeling back and up the right side of my lips as I bemoaned the slings and arrows from beneath Mrs. Herger’s French beret. To this day, I’m not sure that Marcel was much of a director — his only stage direction to me in delivering the “Too, too sullied flesh” soliloquy was the relatively uninspiring “Just try and imagine what it must have been like to be Kurt Cobain” — but as far as I know, he just received a Canada Council grant to do a version of The Canterbury Tales, set in Syria, called The Wife of Ba’ath.
Looking back counterfactually, there are so many little things, any one of which having gone differently would have prevented the whole FreedomChunks mess. Naturally, if Google hadn’t been contracted by Washington’s Department of Homeland Security to sift through foreign websites like ours, looking for dangerous combinations of words — in our case the terms “freedom-loving,” “patriots,” and “Iraqi,” words that, found in a non-American context, were red-flagged by the Google people as overtures towards the insurgents — Mandeep and I would never have gone to prison at all. And sometimes I think that if the CBC hadn’t been running the 17-part Air India: A People’s History the week that we were brought in to be questioned, the interrogating officers might not have eyed Mandeep’s beard and turban with such suspicion.
Because in actual fact, before we came up with FreedomChunks — before we said that now that everybody knew that the fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t mean anything, we could buy their old pieces of it for cheap; that if we could get our hands on the statues of Saddam Hussein that they were felling all over Iraq, we could weld hunks of them to the handfuls of the wall that had once divided East from West, forever fusing Washington’s two most brilliant, pyrrhic democratic victories; that we could simultaneously market “FreedomChunks” sincerely to right-wing, Red-state American rubes and ironically to sneering hipsters — you might have called Mandeep and me patriots. You might have, but might doesn’t make right.
We first met in the waiting room of the Maurice Clinic for the treatment of Greek Social Diseases; having gone to bed unprotected with an existentialist girl, I had contracted Sisyphus, with my testes accordingly rolling, purposelessly, from leg to leg. Mandeep, for his part, had mistakenly responded to a classified personal ad titled “Mild Hermes.”
In the waiting room, leafing through daily newspapers, we had gotten to talking current events. Mostly, we chatted about the Orphan Tarek case, which had reached its absurdist crescendo earlier that week.
On the same day as the hawkish southern Congressman Whytleford had televised his pin-prick donation of DNA to his anti-Terror pet-project, the “Liberty Databank” (what he hoped would become a meta-file containing genetic information on each and every American citizen), Orphan Tarek had appeared on the air in a choreographed press conference with the smutty host of the day-time talk show Murray!, Murray Mandel.
While Murray rubbed his back rhythmically, suppressing a smile, Tarek had admitted with tear-filled eyes that he was not — as his moustache and poorly-paid janitorial employment at the Murray! studios suggested — an Ecuadorian migrant, but was rather a fatherless Peshtun al-Qaeda operative recruited in Afghanistan long after 9/11. He had outlined his mission in the United States: to infiltrate a network program representative of the general air of sexual nihilism in America. Murray!, with its penchant for exploiting promiscuous young mothers trying desperately to identify the anonymous fathers of their offspring, had been targeted specifically. What neither al-Qaeda nor Tarek had counted on was the pull of Murray’s paternity tests, the ebullience of which had drawn Tarek out of his mission, sobbingly begging his employer to turn him over to the authorities, to do with him what he had to, if only he could please help the young Afghan find out the identity of his own father.
Congressman Whytleford had seized on Orphan Tarek as an example of exactly the kind of security threats posed to America in the new millennium. Expounding upon the virtues of the Liberty Databank, Whytleford began a series of frothy-mouthed appearances on every network, including Murray’s, pointing an accusatory finger at Tarek while offering the Databank as a panacea. Meanwhile, Mandel’s research team, running out of options as public interest in the case waned, made a successful bid under the Freedom of Information act to access the files already amassed under the Liberty Databank to check against Tarek’s blood sample.
And that’s how we all found out that Whytleford had impregnated a young Peshtun woman while working as a CIA operative in Afghanistan, fighting the Soviets in 1982. The story was on everybody’s minds, because of the passion and controversy that it stirred up; the Congressman angrily addressed his detractors on television, shouting “You don’t know me!” while Tarek smilingly assured the American public that he awaited his trial with confidence, anticipating “all the judicial advantages that a white man can expect in this great country.” To raise money for his defence, Tarek released an album of Cat Stevens covers, leading to a sympathetic profile feature in People magazine headlined “Anti-Yusuf Islam Reverses the Peace Train.”
And that’s how Mandeep and I, fast friends, got on to the subject of the War on Terror, and fundraising, and the statues, and the Berlin Wall, and then — inevitable, following the inexorable pull of the American march to liberty — FreedomChunks.
Clearly, we thought, the best way to proceed would be online, offering European and American sellers the chance to auction off their pieces of the Berlin Wall, and, to boot, I cobbled together an appeal to potential Iraqi partners, whom we would need to provide the pieces of Saddamite paraphernalia. The appeal was titled “A call to freedom-loving Iraqi patriots. . . ” and, once the Google people had matched up those words and traced them to outside the United States, we were finished; the Canadian government hastily promised their allies that, rather than extradite us, they would try Mandeep and I themselves.
The crown’s deft strategy for indicting Mandeep was clear; without openly equating Sikhism and Terrorism, the prosecutor coyly flirted with the Punjabi defendant, asking questions like “Wasn’t that some beard that Hussein was able to grow in the Tikrit spider-hole?” or “That Osama bin Laden — quite a beard on him, no?”
With me, it was a little more difficult: Pasty, cherubic, and unyieldingly Caucasoidal, I had the face that the Canadian public thought that they were protecting from terrorism, not one capable of perpetrating it. In order to remind the court that some white men were deranged enough to loathe our Western liberties as much as any Arab, the prosecutor invoked the fresh memories of the “Al Kayda” case — the case of Philip Schultz, the middle-class son of a Scotch-Canadian mother and German-Canadian father who had legally changed his name to “Al Kayda” in order to impress a militant college radio DJ, Sharona Baker, known on her campus as “the black Jodie Foster.”
Over the course of the trial, public outrage snowballed to the same rhythm as our big media sympathy waned. Towards the beginning, the courtroom sketches of me were chubby, doe-eyed, and innocent; by the end, in what they claimed was a “cost-saving mechanism,” they just used old publicity stills of Al Waxman.
If it hadn’t been for Patricia, our lawyer — and our slavish devotion to every instruction she gave us and strategy she laid out after the disaster of the Kafka Declaration — I think that the crown could have put us away forever.
She said, “My Lord, these two tiny men, these boys, are of a generation tranquilized and paralyzed by an impotent sarcasm, ironic pretensions, and pretentious irony. Theirs is the kind of story that could have been cobbled together by the sort of underemployed, overeducated intellectual Man-Child without the discipline to write a novel, whose whole concept of absurdism has been drawn from syndicated episodes of the Simpsons, and who probably couldn’t even spell the name ‘Peter Cellars.’
“I admit that they have acted out against our ally’s military campaign with the only weapon at their disposal — but My Lord, could they truly have been trying to succeed in disrupting it? Could they have had any real expectation that their puny sarcasm, their droll little joke, could have made any impact whatsoever? What satiric figure have they seen go unbought, uncoopted? None, My Lord. They know as well as anyone that the system can not only take a joke — it tends also to take the joker. Smarmy sarcasm won’t halt the march of American democracy to every corner of the world, and these boys knew it, My Lord. Their antics, like their insights, were harmless and inconsequential.”
Those were her words, and they won us the case. Mandeep and I pushed out past our supporters to the press scrum, where Mandeep elatedly announced his spiritual conversion to Pentecostalism, telling the reporters to “watch out for my upcoming soul-patch.” Later on, over milkshakes, he and I went over Patricia’s strategy in detail, with waning smiles. Even though it set me free, in the end, her defence made me feel so small.
Charles Demers is a writer, activist and stand-up comic based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is a founding editor of the online journal Seven Oaks Magazine.