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It's no joke anymore

January 15, 2006|Ariel Dorfman's latest books are "Desert Memories" and "Burning City," a novel written with his youngest son, Joaquin.

On dec. 27, at 11:31 a.m., agents of the Department of Homeland Security detained me at Miami International Airport and, after searching my briefcase, impounded a speech I was scheduled to deliver at the plenary session of the Modern Language Assn. of America in Washington.

Well, not quite.

It's true I told this story to about 2,000 professors of language and literature attending a forum on the "Role of the Intellectual in the 21st Century." Because I could not deliver the purloined speech, I said, I would instead recount my interrogation by two intimidating-looking men in a windowless room at the airport.

It was all a gigantic fabrication. Throughout my remarks, I sprinkled numerous clues that I was engaged in a tongue-in-cheek attempt to illustrate the contradictions of intellectual life in our times of turmoil. I referred to Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov, masters of deception and false manuscripts. I speculated that my interrogators were employed by a secret division of Homeland Security whose mission was to weed out scholars with "dangerous" academic leanings.

I described one of the men as a tall and gangly fellow who wore Trotsky-like glasses and who made derisory comments about my speech's central thesis: that American intellectuals could learn some lessons about the erosion of freedom in this country since Sept. 11, 2001, by examining another "Sept. 11," the day when the Chilean military overthrew the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, in 1973.

I pushed the absurdity of my tale to the extreme when I said that my interrogators had grilled me about possible Chilean sleeper cells bent on revenge against the CIA for its role in the destruction of Chile's democracy.

The whole exercise was a gentle way to poke fun at the self-importance of intellectuals by showing that my high-sounding arguments could not even persuade these two agents. "I think you guys at the Modern Language Assn. take yourselves way too seriously," I had one of them say. In the mouth of the second bogus agent, whom I described as short, beefy and vulgar, I put these words: "You want people to understand what the hell you're talking about? Try a bit of humor."

And I had followed his advice and told the assembled professors this story.

But I quickly discovered that some took my whimsical literary invention way too seriously. One professor later stopped me and wondered why the agents had not Googled my name to determine if I posed a real danger. Another wanted to know if my computer had been confiscated. Still others asked if "those brutes" had roughed me up. A former student of mine told me she was writing a letter to the Washington Post to protest my mistreatment. In an afternoon session, a graduate student confessed to me that my story had filled her with fear because if someone like me could be detained and interrogated, what might happen to ordinary people like her when they enter the United States?

It then dawned on me how deeply my fictional account of detention by Homeland Security agents had resonated with unbridled fantasies inside the heads of so many of my colleagues. I doubted that any of them were about to be sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And as my bogus agents had pointed out when I tried to convince them that the U.S. is on the verge of becoming a police state, I was free to say anything I wanted at the Modern Language Assn. convention.

Yet there was no denying that my tale had tapped into a deep paranoia. If entirely rational men and women, experts in literary interpretation and ironical readings, believed me, it was because they must have already imagined the possibility of my sham experience befalling them. Not one of my friends and associates at the convention or afterward dismissed my tall tale as patently absurd. When I lamented the naivete of my sophisticated audience, the response was unanimous: It was I who was naive.

Was I? My fraudulent yarn was apparently all too terrifyingly plausible in a country where citizens can be held indefinitely without charges, where domestic overseas telephone calls are monitored by an agency of the government without warrants, where the vice president defends the use of torture against alleged terrorists and where a president invades another country under false pretenses.

The sad truth about my story is that it comes straight out of the trepidation and terror caused by 9/11 and its aftermath. Before that day, I would not even have thought of concocting it, because most Americans would not have understood what I was talking about. The joke would have fallen flat.

The sadder truth is that I can imagine an epilogue to my story.

The United States is hit by an even more devastating and lethal terrorist attack.

On that day, can I confidently say that there will not be a knock at my door and that two men, one tall and gangly, the other short and beefy, will not ask me if I recall spreading lies about their efforts to fight the war on terrorism? And that they will not demand that I accompany them, just for a few hours, for some routine questioning?

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