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A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb

Has post-9/11 fear created a not-so-brave new world of bullies and fools?

By Terry Hong / August 17, 2010

A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb by Amitava Kumar Duke University Press 217 pp., $21.95

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If Rip Van Winkle were to read A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb upon waking, he would most likely shake his head and dismiss it as farce.

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Alas, you’ll only find this title in the “non-fiction” section of bookstores and libraries; it’s published by an esteemed academic press and written by a respected professor of English at an elite American college. Indeed, “truth is stranger than fiction,” and “you just can’t make this stuff up.” (Although, coincidentally, journalist/novelist/poet/professor Amitava Kumar also had a novel – “Nobody Does the Right Thing” – published on the same day as “Foreigner.”)

Novel aside, “Foreigner” is part contemporary history, part investigative journalism, part political treatise, part memoir – and an absolute must-read. My greatest fear is that the readers who most need to read this book will not.

Kumar is an excellent storyteller. He’s also immensely convincing. Drawing on his vast, voracious knowledge of literature, film, television, and breaking headlines, Kumar makes a case that post-9/11 fear has created a not-so-brave new world of bullies and fools.

Moving fluidly between his adopted US home and his birthplace of India – another country altered by concerns over terrorism – Kumar carefully exposes what he sees as the senseless abuse of power justified by the “war on terror”: “[M]uch of my reportage here is in the service of presenting the anti-terrorism state as the biggest bungler,” Kumar writes in his acknowledgements as he thanks “the non-experts,” “the losers,” and “the small people.”

Kumar first focuses on two ineffectual men, each of whom he classifies as an “accidental terrorist.” He demonstrates in rich detail the ways in which both men were victims of legal entrapment, more guilty of stupidity than actual terrorism, manipulated into crime by others who were mostly concerned with saving themselves in the eyes of an already nervous US government.

The first “accidental terrorist” is Hemant Lakhani, a nearly-70-year-old failed businessman with delusions of grandeur, who was convicted of trying to sell a missile to a would-be terrorist. The missile was a dud, shipped to a New Jersey hotel room by the FBI, and brokered by a “terrorist” who proved to be FBI informant Habib Rehman. Rehman – also a failed businessman – had considerable debts, a self-confessed track record as a liar, and a history of tax evasion. His handsome salary was funded by US taxpayers.

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