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Stop Waving Flags, Start Protesting

Uwe Ohler

Last week, The New York Times reported on yet another unsettling new measure from the Department of Homeland Security. Unfortunately, this time it does not come with the absurdly comical flavor of advice related to duct tape and its potential defensive uses. Since Gulf War II’s opening day, refugees from 33 countries seeking asylum in the United States are being detained on arrival. These refugees, most of whom have faced incredibly hard times before arriving here, will from now on be imprisoned until their application has been approved or not, a process taking half a year or longer. They are basically treated as potential terrorists until proven otherwise.

Even though the Department did not want to reveal which countries are on this list, when that information leaked out, it was not really surprising -- it’s more or less the whole Arabic world. And it is only one of many worrisome recent regulations: Special registration of foreigners of specific countries and detainment of “suspects” without trial and lawyer are among the others. Granted, all this happens in the name of security: for example, three non-Sept. 11 terrorists entered the country as refugees. But there is a trade-off between security and mania, and between rightful prosecution and discrimination, to say nothing of the effectiveness of these new measures. Just think a moment -- how many terrorists legally entered America on a student visa? That would be the same kind of visa I have, coming from Germany.

So, what will be next? I already know quite a few foreign students who do not feel comfortable in this country any more: An MIT Web site for foreigners, http://, tells you what to do in case the FBI shows up for you! As a German researcher, I am not in imminent danger of forced registration or detainment. As some people have told me, I can indeed go back where I come from and leave the United States if I don’t like it here: As a German, I have a stable country to which to return. But I’d rather stay here a little longer, and be proud of this place where I live and work.

People are afraid of what they do not know. And this fear is openly exploited by the U.S. government these days -- just think of the “terror alert scale.” But here at MIT, you do know better. You study together with foreigners: 8 percent of undergraduate and 37 percent of graduate students come from abroad. Everyone knows foreigners; I’m sure many of you have some of “us” as friends. As a foreigner, I believe this diversity is one of MIT’s greatest strengths -- and, still, of the United States in general. But if events continue to develop as they have, at some point there won’t be many foreigners left. They will stop coming, face detainment, or go back home.

I wish and truly hope it will not come to that, and that’s why I’ve recently been out on the street at rallies, protesting the path this country is taking: This unnecessary war is only the horrible tip of the iceberg. So, all of you who sit back in resignation now that the war has started, please start acting before it gets even worse! Observe with open eyes what is going on in this country, and don’t say later that you did not know. Think of what could be next, of what you are about to lose, and then speak up and go to the street as well.

Uwe Ohler is a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Biology.