Peace Frogs: “Dearbornistan” and the Strange Case of the Caro Terrorists

by Craig Bernthal

Private Papers

In Frankenmuth, Michigan, among a complex of little shops that sell junk to tourists, there is a T-shirt store called “Peace Frog.” On each T-shirt, there is a large squatting bright green frog, who sticks out a paw, huge in the foreground, making the sixties “V” sign for peace. The most nostalgic shirt is tie-dyed rainbow, with a big green peace frog, but if you want something more contemporary, you can get a pirate peace frog squatting in front of a dark ship, emblematized with “Pirates of the Amphibian.” There weren’t many people in the shop the afternoon I was there with my sister and my mother. My sister, who has a son who did two tours in Iraq and is more a dyed-in-the-wool Republican than a tie-dyed, Woodstock-generation Democrat, bought a shirt. It was for old time sake, worth a chuckle, and I suppose as long as there are baby boomers left who want to remember their youth, there will be a market for peace-frog T-shirts.

Unfortunately, there is still plenty of peace frogism left in the national consciousness. It is exemplified by Ned Lamont’s thumping primary defeat of Joe Lieberman, and it goes back to the assumptions of people who campaigned for George McGovern and Dr. Spock. The assumptions of peace frogs are that if we stay very still, in the middle of our own ponds and don’t cause a ripple, that no one will bother us; that American foreign policy can be nothing but imperialistic and evil; and that when we are visited by events like 9/11, it must be because we’ve done something to deserve it.

Many of us, perhaps, are caught in a less virulent form of peace frogism: we’d like to believe our situation is more stable and less dangerous than it is.

On the day I flew back to Michigan for my mother’s 80th birthday celebration, the British made their arrests of the terrorists who had plotted to blow up several transatlantic flights from England to the U.S. I got wind that something was up when I checked into the Fresno Airport at 5 a.m. and saw lots of police, TV cameras, and long lines at security, where people were being relieved of all liquid carry-on items. The woman in front of me at the X-ray machine had a small tube of cold sore medicine confiscated. I got into the airport at Saginaw an hour and a half late, going through some chaos at O’Hare — but then O’Hare is always chaotic, and somehow, United Airlines had forgotten to supply a flight crew for our plane.

This set the tone for a strange week in Michigan, when the war on terror crept into the quiet rural area where I grew up, and sixties nostalgia left. First, Hezbollah scored big propaganda “victories” in Lebanon and Dearborn, Michigan. Dearborn has both the largest community of Shiite Moslems in the United States and the largest mosque. The Arab-American community of Dearborn is mainly from Lebanon and Iraq. When I was a kid, the Chaldean families of Dearborn were noted for being prosperous, law abiding citizens who owned a lot of liquor stores. Guy Raz, for National Public Radio reported, “Along Warren Avenue, the nexus of Arab Dearborn, Lebanese flags flutter everywhere. Nearly every sign is in English and Arabic.”

During that week, the demonstrations in Dearborn in support of Hezbollah were large and regular. On at least one occasion, 10,000 people took part, carrying banners proclaiming, “Hezbollah Is Our Army,” and displaying caricatures of the Israeli flag with a swastika over the Star of David. A woman carried a large sign displaying a picture of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Inside Dearborn’s Islamic Center, people gathered to support Hezbollah. No peace-frogs here, apparently.

While all this was happening, on Friday, August 11, three Arab-American men from Texas, Maruan Awad Muhareb, Adham Abdelhamid Othman, and Louai Abdelhamied Othman walked in to the Wal-Mart store in Caro, Michigan, a small town in “the thumb” of the Michigan mitten, and purchased 80 prepaid cell phones. A suspicious grave-yard cashier called 911 and the three were arrested. The police found 1,000 cell phones in the minivan the three were using. (This happened three days after two men from Dearborn, Ali Houssaiky and Osama Abulhassan, had bought 600 cell phones in various stores in Ohio, were charged in Ohio with money laundering in support of terrorism and soliciting or providing support for acts of terrorism.) The three men arrested in Caro said they were buying the cell phones for resale in Texas. The men charged in Ohio also said they were buying the phones to resell them. The Caro arrestees have since been released, after Federal and State officials found no connections between the men and terrorism, but not before papers in Michigan had picked up the speculation that the three men were in a plot targeting the Mackinac Bridge.

Now, there are many striking things about these events. One is the ease and rapidity at which many Americans have adapted to some aspects of the post 9/11 world. In the airports I went through on August 10, no one seemed surprised by anything that was happening: The security man wants to confiscate my drinking water, my shampoo, my medicine, my make-up? Fine. Delayed flights? Big lines at security? Code orange? No big deal. That’s the way things are now, and will be for a long time. And by the way, thank God for British intelligence.

Three Arab-Americans buy 80 cell phones in a town with the population of a Fresno high school and a graveyard shift cashier, who undoubtedly has heard plenty about using cell phones to detonate IEDs in Iraq, calls the police. (You have to wonder what was going through the minds of the people in the small towns across the northern tier who sold the other 1,000 cell phones, apparently without question.) That the United States is under attack has clearly penetrated the consciousness of at least one cashier.

What is more surprising, however, is how little the threat of jihadist terrorism has penetrated Dearborn, for instance, where behavior seems alternately sinister and naïve as people by the thousands march in support of the most dangerous jihadist organization on the planet. Perhaps what is most astonishing is that there is little complaint about Dearborn and little news coverage.  In Michigan, you hear an occasional half-comic aside to “Dearbornistan.”

Although we’ve accommodated ourselves to the inconveniences of airport security, have we, as a nation, really gotten the picture? Hezbollah’s “victory” in Lebanon is a huge spiritual victory for Iran also and will only energize that country’s will to power. Taking Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at his word, that he wants to destroy Israel, while Iran steams ahead with a nuclear program that could produce the means to do it, a military confrontation between the United States and Iran seems much more likely today than it did a few weeks ago.

Yet, we are still a shockingly calm country after 9/11, a complacent country. We are still a land where silly sixties peace-frog T-shirts are emblematic of our mental landscape. We’d like to accommodate the Dearborn demonstrations as if their demonstrations were consanguineous with civil rights marches or anti-war demonstrations of the sixties, but they aren’t, and the day when we will be forced to recognize that fact draws near.  The cashier in Caro had the right impulse, even if in this particular case, capitalism rather than terrorism was probably at work.

Share This