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The Long Road of Death and Destruction Between Manhattan in 2001 and Schoharie in 2018

Newburgh, New York Photo credit: government-ny.org

The Long Road of Death and Destruction Between Manhattan in 2001 and Schoharie in 2018

The glow of the work lights of the World Trade Center seem surreal as seen from the rooftop of my graduate school dormitory at New York University in August 1970. The towers appear in that bath of light contrasted against the surrounding darkness… The two buildings are so mammoth that it seems that I could simply reach out from Washington Square South in Greenwich Village and touch them in lower Manhattan. They are far away in both time and space from the worn out streets of Newburgh, New York in 2008 and the intersection of routes 30 and 30A in Schoharie in 2018, a rural community of about 3,300 people west of the state capital in Albany.

In 2008, an FBI operative and perpetrator of fraud at the Albany, New York Department of Motor Vehicles, Shahed Hussain, showed up at Masjid al-Ikhlas mosque in Newburgh, New York using the name “Maqsood.” Hussain spoke about jihad, violence, and made misogynist statements. Many members of the mosque believed that Hussain was an informant: He was someone to avoid. By 2009, Hussain had encouraged, enlisted, and coaxed four Newburgh men into accepting three targets as part of a cooked-up plan of terrorism. The targets were Riverdale Temple, Riverdale Jewish Center, both in the Bronx, and a military plane or planes at nearby Stewart International Airport in Newburgh. The kingpin of the four was James Cromitie who later said of his accomplices: “(They were) Do[ing] it for the money. They’re not even thinking about the cause.” His accomplices were David Williams, Onta Williams, and Laguerre Payen.

Commenting on the FBI and the way it operated after the September 2001 attacks, Michae German, a former FBI undercover agent said that the “Rules don’t apply anymore,” in reference to how the FBI would function after 2001. In 2001, the FBI failed to pay adequate attention at its administrative level to credible information from an agent in the field that an attack against the U.S. by terrorists was imminent. George W. Bush had similar evidence that an attack would most likely involve aircraft and he failed to act on that information. Many believe that the new branding of the FBI following 2001, in a diminished role within the Department of Homeland Security, created added impetus to find terror plots even where they did not exist. Shahed Hussain fits “neatly” into that pattern and plan.

German continued in the HBO documentary “The Newburgh Sting” (2014): “Treat the entire Muslim community as suspect.” That line of reasoning is evident in a discussion of the Newburgh plan between Hussain and one of his FBI handlers: “Make sure they’re Muslims.” In terms of statistics, it is noteworthy that while there have been reportedly 15,000 FBI informants that agency has used since 2001, not one plot has been connected directly to a mosque. Not a single mosque has been named in an actual act of terror.. However, while the FBI used the tactic of enlisting people through the infiltration and surveillance of mosques and the use of informants including Hussain, major terror cases like the Times Square bomber, the Underwear bomber, and the Boston Marathon bombers have gone undiscovered by the FBI and other intelligence agencies. The infiltration of mosques was government policy and its knowledge travelled in a direct line between intelligence agencies, the attorney general, the FBI director, and the president. In other words, it was policy known and sanctioned at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

On May 6, 2009, the men enlisted in the Newburgh plot drove to Stamford, Connecticut to pick up three dummy backpack bombs and a phony Stinger surface-to-air guided missile. That action made the alleged offenses a federal crime because the men crossed state lines to procure dummy bombs and the missile to be used in the cooked-up terror plot. They purchased cellphones and cameras at a Walmart and a handgun in Brooklyn.

They drove three separate cars to the Bronx on May 20, 2009 and placed the fake bombs and were arrested returning to their cars. The scene of mayhem in the Bronx was notable for the fact that despite the knowledge of no real threat to the targets, a massive law enforcement presence was obvious, including the use of huge trucks to block roads.

Charged with conspiracy and weapons offenses, following their arrest on May 20, 2009, including conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles, their alleged offenses carried a maximum sentence of life in prison.

They pled not guilty in March 2010. Lawyers for the four men filed a motion to dismiss on grounds of entrapment. The proposed scheme by the informant Hussain suggested targets and provided the fake explosives and missile.

In an interview for the documentary, a relative of one of the Newburgh 4, said that the men were out to swindle Hussain, and that is a reasonable conclusion given that they were all poor and desperate for money.

At their trial in August 2010, Hussain raised the specter of anti-Semitism in regard to James Cromitie, and that would have been a powerful issue for the court given the memory of September 11, 2001, the fear of another attack on the city, and the ethnic-religious composition of New York.

The four men were sentenced on June 29, 2011. The trial judge called Cromitie “both bigoted and suggestible,” but having hate-filled sentiments and ideas alone is not enough to sentence someone to jail. The judge continued that the government “did not have to infiltrate and foil some nefarious plot— there was no nefarious plot to foil.” Indeed, the FBI’s informant, Hussain, told Cromitie, as recorded in the HBO documentary “The Newburgh Sting” that “I have lots of ideas for you.” Not only did Hussain have lots of ideas for the four men, but he also enticed Cromitie further with a promise of $250,000, cars, and vacations when Cromitie began to waver and went temporarily AWOL from the plan in 2009, after losing his night job at a local Walmart. One of the Newburgh 4, Onta Williams, had been a factory worker. These were all poor men in a decaying urban environment, and in the case of Payen, here was someone with substantial intellectual and mental health issues, who needed a job and professional treatment, and was regarded as unreliable by Cromitie. The FBI, according to the Newburgh 4 documentary, considered the four men incapable of carrying out an action on their own. There is no doubt that Cromitie held anti-Semitic hatreds, stating to Hussain: “Those fucking Jewish bastards,” but again, holding outrageous, hateful beliefs is a far cry from initiating violent actions against people and institutions that embody different beliefs. All four men were sentenced to 25 years in federal prison.

Prosecutors described the men as “extremely violent,” but they had no violent offenses on their records. The defense argued that men would have never joined the plot without goading by a paid informant. The four men are all now in separate federal prisons.

On August 23, 2013 a federal appeals court in Manhattan voted 2 to 1 to uphold the convictions of the four men. Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs dissented and stated that there was no pre intent and Cromitie was “badgered” into joining the plot. The appeals court also held that the government’s actions in supplying phony weapons and a plot “does not exceed due process limits.” Here existed a kind of governmental tortured logic.

The FBI “would have been derelict in their duties if they did not test how far Cromitie would go to carry out his desires. When a government agent encounters a muslim [sic] who volunteers that he wants to do something to America or die like a martyr, the agent is entitled to probe the attitudes of that person to learn whether his religious views have impelled him toward the violent brand of radical Islam that poses a dire threat to the United States.”

It was not uncommon, following the 2016 general election, to encounter people from all kinds of backgrounds whose sentiments and statements toward Donald Trump could have resulted in their being sent to federal prison given the tortured reasoning of the appeals court in the Newburgh case.

The Deadly Schoharie Limousine Crash

Unintended but foreseeable consequences can come about in a world in which violence and mayhem have become regular, if not the norm. It would have been impossible to predict wars lasting over 17 years as a result of the U.S. arming of the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, or people so bent on destruction that thousands of innocent people would have been killed going about their daily routines in New York City in 2001.

At the time of a limousine crash in Schoharie, New York on October 6, 2018, Shahed Hussain appears to have been in his native country, Pakistan. A limousine carrying 17 people to a birthday party crashed at an intersection killing all of the occupants including the driver, who was not licensed to carry the number of people heading to the party. The limousine had previously failed official safety inspections and was not supposed to be on the road. The limousine was owned and operated by Prestige Limousine, a company whose day-to-day operations were overseen by Shahed Hussain’s son, Nauman, who has been charged as being “criminally negligent” in the deaths of the 20 people in the limo crash (“As community mourns, limo owner’s story emerges,” Times Union, October 14, 2018). The limousine company’s owner was Shahed Hussain.

The elder Hussain had carried out documented FBI stings. Now, the limo his company operated lay in a ditch beyond a Schoharie intersection.

The limousine that had failed several New York state safety inspections crashed at the intersection of routes 30 and 30A in October 2018, near a popular restaurant where two people in the restaurant’s parking lot were also killed by the speeding limo.

It may or may not be possible to trace the money paid to Hussain by the U.S. government for enlisting impoverished, black men into a conspiracy that they could not have dreamt of even in spectacular nightmares. Did the $95,000 of tax-free money that Hussain was paid get funneled into the limo service whose shoddy operation allegedly resulted in the deaths of so many innocent people? It is almost as if the U.S. arrived at a metaphorical crossroads in September 2001 and the horror of that day has resulted and reverberated in so many unanticipated and horrific outcomes. There could have been a choice made in the days following September 11, 2001, perhaps a police action to arrest and try Osama bin Laden and his co-conspirators rather than fighting endless wars, but this nation was already on a course set to double down on that terrorism in ways whose results were almost beyond comprehension.

Hussain’s previous involvement as an informant for the FBI is documented in Mother Jones “Wondering If Your “Jihadist” Friend Is With the FBI” (March 20, 2012), and provides riveting examples of Hussain’s actions in other FBI operations.

Creating terror plots where there were none was one way in which the consequences of national policy have played out. It is approximately 103 miles from Newburgh, New York to Schoharie, and about 68 miles from Manhattan to Newburgh. No one could have anticipated the insanity and death that would link these three places before September 11, 2001 and the thousands of lives that would be erased and fractured and the intersections of how those events reverberated into the present.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.

Notes: Calls to several offices went unanswered as I attempted to seek comments on both the Newburgh 4 and the Schoharie crash. The New York Conference of the NAACP would not comment, but referred me to the national headquarters of the NAACP, where my call to the media director of the organization was not returned. I had called the NAACP because neither of the numbers of the Albany and the Newburgh NAACP were working numbers. I attempted to get a comment from a representative of the Masjid al-Ikhlas mosque in Newburgh, and I received no response. I did speak with a staff writer for the Times Union who confirmed that Hussain’s whereabouts were not known at the time of the publication of that paper’s article cited above. Finally, I contacted the office of one of the attorneys for the Newburgh 4, Samuel Braverman, and received no comment.

We Still Don’t Get it on the Left

Ku Klux Klan 1921-1922 Photo credit: Library of Congress

We Still Don’t Get it on the Left

The messages via email began arriving in my inbox as midterm election results were still undecided in places such as Florida and Georgia. Some of the emails came from MoveOn and all of the appeals were in support of two local demonstrations/vigils to be held in support of Jeffrey Sessions who had just been fired by Donald Trump. Imagine leftists and liberals holding vigils for a racist whose last official act as attorney general was to make it impossible for the Justice Department to investigate local police departments. Here’s a guy who heaped praise on the Ku Klux Klan, but opined that their only flaw was that some members of that group smoked marijuana.

The Guardian ran an article, “National populism is unstoppable-and the left still doesn’t understand it” (November 8, 2018), by Matthew Goodwin, co-author of National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, in which he makes many cogent observations on the sweep of right-wing movements in several so-called liberal democracies in the West:

So what is really going on? National populism is revolving around four deep-rooted societal shifts: the “four Ds”. First, there are high levels of political distrust, which are being exacerbated by populist leaders who paint themselves and their followers as victims of a political system that has become less representative of key groups. Second, many people have strong and entrenched fears about the perceived destruction of national cultures, ways of life and values, amid unprecedented and rapid rates of immigration and ethnic change. Accompanying this distrust and fear are anxieties related to deprivation and the loss of jobs and income, along with a strong sense that they and their ethnic and social group are being left behind relative to others in society.

Finally, many political systems in the west are having to grapple with a new era of dealignment, in which bonds between voters and traditional parties are breaking down, and hence the path for new political challengers is much more open.

Many of Goodwin’s points have been made by other writers and social scientists using different assessments and terminology, but the outcome is the same in society after society with profound effects on the rest of us and the entire planet. They—populists of the far right—want simple or easy answers to difficult questions and they are sometimes eager and ready to use violence to achieve their ends.

While many pundits celebrated the results of Tuesday’s election as a stopgap against Trump, he hardly skipped a beat getting back to his hate-filled rhetoric and actions against immigrants and dropped a passing comment about praying for the victims of the latest national gun outrage in California.

Back to Goodwin: He’s accurate in his assessment that the far right juggernaut carries in it seeds of the culture wars that began in response to the movements for change in the 1960s across the globe. I don’t think that they’re stoppable at this point and the Sword of Damocles of nuclear war and the destruction of the natural environment hang in the balance. And while we’re waiting for this almost inevitable debacle, let’s get out there for Sessions!

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.

“Let the music Keep our Spirits High”

Balloon and airplane over the Berkshires. Photo credit: Howard Lisnoff

“Let the music keep our spirits high
Let the buildings keep our children dry
Let creation reveal its secrets by and by, by and by
When the light that’s lost within us reaches the sky” Jackson Browne

Wake-up From the Nightmare

Protest March, January 21, 2017. Photo credit: Howard Lisnoff

As We Approach the 2018 Election

Protest March January 21, 2017 Photo credit: Howard Lisnoff

The New York City Skyline from the 215th Street Subway Station

The New York City Skyline from the 215th Street Subway Station Photo credit: Howard Lisnoff

In an Apartment in Brooklyn

Tree of Life synagogue Photo credit: Reuters

In An Apartment in Brooklyn
Published at CounterPunch November 1, 2018

Faige (a fictitious name) remains in her apartment in Brooklyn, New York and all of the fears that she felt as a teenager in Eastern Europe during the onslaught of Naziism in the lead-up to World War II have come back. It was Kristallnacht on the night of November 9-10, 1938. She witnessed the murder of family members and was saved only through the intervention of a family acquaintance who was a taxi driver. She was a 17-year-old with striking red hair and the taxi driver and his basic humanity and fearlessness are the only things that saved Faige from the Holocaust that would follow.

Now in her apartment in Brooklyn the scenes of the horror that she witnessed 80 years ago have come back to her, as the news of the horrific attack against members of the Jewish congregation in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life congregation became known.

Faige sees two men in her apartment from the Nazi past who are not physically present, but are all-too real to her and their intent is to murder her, as they did to members of her immediate family. Although people who have come to visit and comfort her sit in the chairs where she imagines the Nazis are sitting, she cannot distinguish between, in the horror she continues to experience, those who have come to be with her to help and the horrific ghosts that haunt from the past. Her fear cannot be assuaged and it is difficult for her to calm down in the new horror in which she finds herself.

There are some with the expertise to analyze with some measure of precision what is happening to Faige, who has witnessed the unspeakable and now is immersed in the reports of what has happened in a place where she thought that she was safe. Indeed, most Jews in the U.S. felt safe until the alleged attack by Robert Bowers in the Jewish congregation in Pittsburgh where people came to worship. Although a degree of anti-Semitism has been present in U.S. society, along with racism and other forms of hatred against immigrants and against other religious persuasions, that hatred was seen in context as extremist views and was not accepted and encouraged by those at the highest levels of government in Washington, D.C. But now there is a free-for-all of hate that the President of the United States and some members of his administration have forcefully supported. And the anti-Semites and white supremacists are listening carefully and heeding those words. In Kentucky, an alleged murderer shot and killed two elderly black people after he was thwarted by a locked door in an attempted attack against a black church.

Indeed, when Donald Trump admonishes and condemns madmen and violent extremists like alleged bomb maker Cesar Sayoc and alleged gunman Robert Bowers, it is a simple task to Google the numerous instances in which Trump has encouraged and stoked the flames of hatred by his own statements in public places. He began his presidential campaign with attacks against immigrants and is so lacking in judgement that he held a campaign rally in the Midwest on the night of the slaughter in Pittsburgh and added a call for arming those in houses of worship as a remedy for racist and religious intolerance and hatred that he himself has supported. This narcissist can’t begin to understand how those in grief need empathy in a time of great suffering.

How does Trump think that the doctored video clip of him attacking a caricatured figure with an image of a head composed of the CNN logo outside of a wrestling ring would be seen to those lost at the fringes of society? Trump is a master at playing the media in a perverse Orwellian manner that appeals to lost and hateful souls and many of those who support and supported Trump and his fellow travelers in the Republican Party. It is all calculated and has had its intended effect on those of us of goodwill and a woman in an apartment in Brooklyn who has suffered so much! Trump finds that among these mass murderers and terrorists are some “very fine people.” It takes a lot of ignorance and bald-face meanness to terrorize a 97-year-old woman! These fascists know the lethal effects of their words. They represent a decaying social, political, and economic system that the power elite has learned how to play.

The Hudson River, the Catskills, and a Fall Sky

Above the Hudson River in Hudson, New York. Photo credit: Howard Lisnoff

Above the Hudson River in Hudson, New York

The Right and Neoliberals Get Away With Murder Because They Can

Women’s March, January 21, 2017. Photo credit: Howard Lisnoff

Kavanaugh and Trump Photo credit: journallaband.com

The Right and Neoliberals Get Away With Murder Because They Can

Published at CounterPunch on October 10, 2018

Every time that the Trump administration or the Congress take another egregious position, or enact some inhumane new distortion of what it means to inhabit a livable world, the emails and text messages arrive in masses.

And here’s the kicker, readers: It all has made such a small difference that it appears to those who still hold on to the crumbs of rationality and reason like a grand waste of time. The Internet gives the impression that by signing some petition, or belonging to some Internet-based groups, that change can actually come about. Defeat follows upon the heels of yet another defeat and a new batch of online petitions appear. What an absolute delusion!

As for mass demonstrations, they achieve just about the same results. Look at the recent debacle of the Supreme Court. Millions marched on the streets for women’s rights and the result is just about less than nothing. Misogyny is accepted by a significant number of people. No one marches anymore for peace, except small groups of atomized people, and we get an annual military budget exceeding $700 billion. The war in Afghanistan is now 17-years-old and it has all of the trappings of privatization on its doorstep and on its land. Erik Prince, the founder of the mercenary company formally known as Blackwater, has a presence in this war that largely goes unreported in the mass media. When Barack Obama ordered a drone strike that killed 16-year-old American citizen, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, in Yemen while he was eating dinner, almost nobody gave a damn. The environment, the single greatest existential threat, similarity attracts small groups that will take great risks to their freedom, and the result is that the entire ecosystem is tanking. The lists do go on. The antinuclear group Plowshares takes demonstrative action against the obscenity of nuclear proliferation (including the so-called modernization of nuclear weapons arsenals) and the sentences handed down to protesters are draconian. The message: Don’t mess with profits, private property, or endless wars. Those folks, the protesters, survive only because they have a community from which to seek and receive sustenance, while the rest of us have shopping malls and the Internet.

Once, during the Vietnam antiwar movement, people took big risks to fight for freedom. Most were young, and although self-interest played some part in our actions on the streets, we had youth and ideals on our side. Even though public opinion was always against us, we brought a hideous war of mass aggression and mass murder to an end.

Now, despite huge rallies for popular liberal candidates for office, many of the young don’t even bother to go out and vote. Voting, in and of itself, is only one way to bring about some limited measure of change. Here are the Census Bureau’s May 2017 statistics about who voted in 2016 (“Voting in America: A Look at the 2016 Presidential Election”):

Voting rates have also historically varied according to age, with older Americans generally voting at higher rates than younger Americans. In 2016, this was once again the case, as citizens 65 years and older reported higher turnout (70.9 percent) than 45- to 64-year-olds (66.6 percent), 30- to 44-year-olds (58.7 percent) and 18- to 29-year-olds (46.1 percent). However, in 2016, young voters ages 18 to 29 were the only age group to report increased turnout compared to 2012, with a reported turnout increase of 1.1 percent. All older age groups either reported small yet statistically significant turnout decreases (45- to 64-year-olds and those age 65 and older) or turnout rates not statistically different from 2012 (30- to 44-year-olds).

While 46.1 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds voted in 2016, a slight increase from the 2012 election, they are at the lowest end of all voting age groups, so while it appears that they turn out in great numbers at political rallies, etc., when the shoe leather meets the ground in various ways, they’re just not there and if the young are not there to force change at a critical mass, then the show is over. Seventy-year-olds don’t generally make revolutions, and if people cannot even be relied upon to do something as simple as voting, then what will those same people demand and how will they make demands in the face of catastrophes of all kinds?

An appeal to the young is not simply ageism in reverse, but a recognition of the essential fact that only some of those who are young have more energy and ideals.

Readers may want to take part in some simple action research next time they are on the streets, or on a campus, or in an elevator (a great place to view human behavior). It is the exception to find anyone in these situations without a cell phone in hand and head bowed in awe of the Internet.

Individual and group rights have been so diminished since 2001 that most don’t even know that a citizen of the U.S. can be killed without due process and the organized pushback against egregious violations of rights is weak.

It’s symbolically past midnight and we’re standing on the deck of the Titanic. It’s all so damn depressing!

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.

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