Several weeks ago, my roommate Asher and I went to an Indian restaurant just off Times Square in the heart of midtown Manhattan. We helped ourselves to the buffet and sat down to begin eating.
Suddenly there was a terrible commotion and five police officers in bulletproof vests stormed down the stairs. They had their guns drawn and were pointing them indiscriminately at the restaurant staff and at us.
"Go to the back of the restaurant," they yelled. I hesitated, lost in my own panic. "Did you not hear me? Go to the back and sit down," they demanded. I complied and looked around at the other patrons. There were eight men including the waiter, all of South Asian descent and ranging from late teens to senior citizen. One of the officers pointed his gun in the waiter's face and shouted: "Is there anyone else in the restaurant?" The waiter, terrified, gestured to the kitchen.
The police placed their fingers on the triggers of their guns and kicked open the kitchen doors. Shouts emanated from the kitchen and a few seconds later five Latino men crawled out on their hands and knees, guns pointed at them.
After patting us all down, the five officers seated us at two tables. As they continued to kick open doors to closets and restrooms with their fingers glued to their triggers, officials in business suits emerged from the stairwell. Two walked over to our table and identified themselves as agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Homeland Security Department.
Having some limited knowledge of the rights afforded to U.S. citizens, I asked why we were being held. The INS agent said we would be released once they confirmed that there were no outstanding warrants against us and our immigration status was OK.
In pre-9/11 America, the legality of this would have been questionable. After all, the 4th Amendment states: "The right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures. "
"You have no right to hold us," said Asher. But they explained that they did: This was a homeland security investigation under the authority of the Patriot Act.
The Patriot Act was passed into law on Oct. 26, 2001, in order to facilitate the post-9/11 crackdown on terrorism. Among the unprecedented rights it grants to the federal government are the right to wiretap or detain without a warrant. As I quickly discovered, the right to an attorney has been fudged as well. When I asked to speak to a lawyer, the INS official told me I did have the right to a lawyer but I would have to be taken to the station for security clearance before being granted one. When I asked how long that would take, he replied with a coy smile: "Maybe a day, maybe a week, maybe a month."
We insisted that we had every right to leave and were going to do so. One of the police officers, with his hand on his gun, taunted: "Go ahead and leave, just go ahead." We remained seated.
Our IDs were taken. I was questioned why my license was from out of state and asked whether I had "something to hide." The police continued to hassle the kitchen workers, demanding licenses and dates of birth. One of the kitchen workers was shaking and kept providing the day's date — March 20, 2003 — over and over.
As I continued to press for legal counsel, a female officer put her finger in my face. "We are at war, we are at war and this is for your safety," she exclaimed. As she walked away from the table, she continued to repeat it to herself. "We are at war, we are at war; how can they not understand this?"
I most certainly understand that we are at war, and that we need some measure of security in times like these. But I also understand that the freedoms in the Constitution were meant specifically for times like these.
After an hour and a half, the INS agent returned our licenses. An officer escorted us out. Before we left, the INS agent apologized.
Among the customers, there were four taxi drivers, two students, one newspaper salesman. Several said they were U.S. citizens. I doubt they received apologies. Nor have the hundreds of immigrants being held without charge. Apparently, this type of treatment is acceptable.
Three days after the incident, I phoned the restaurant. The owner was nervous, embarrassed and did not want to talk about it. But I managed to ascertain that the whole thing had been one giant mistake.
A mistake. Loaded guns pointed in faces, people made to crawl, police officers kicking in doors, taunting, keeping their fingers on the trigger even after the situation was under control. A mistake.
And, according to the ACLU, a perfectly legal one, thanks to the Patriot Act.
Jason Halperin lives in New York City.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times