Even in this quiet neighborhood, fear of terrorism creeps

August 08, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN THE 5300 block of Gwynn Oak Ave., which is right here in America, life goes on. The roofers are back on the roof, the neighbors are mingling on the sidewalk, and a mailman is approaching the home rented by Mahmud Faruq Brent, who has just been accused of connections to international terrorism.

The mailman, Herbert Turner, is perspiring pretty heavily. Maybe it's the heat, or maybe it's the moment. On the morning after about 30 FBI agents with shotguns and bomb squad guys with a battering ram swarmed all over this property, Turner's delivering mail to this Brent, who's being held without bail on charges that strike at the heart of modern American anxiety.

"What kind of mail?" Turner was asked.

"Don't know," he said. "Nobody told me, `Don't deliver the mail,' so I just deliver it. At least I didn't hear anything ticking."

The last line was a wry joke. When the feds showed up the day before, they saw half a dozen guys who were putting a new roof on this old, shingled house where Brent rented an apartment, and they ordered all of them to climb down and sit on the curb while they checked to see if any of them had criminal records.

"Come down the ladder," roofer Marc Wright remembered an FBI agent calling up to him. "We have shotguns."

"We aren't terrorists," Wright shouted down. He looked down from the roof and saw agents spread all the way to the bus stop on the corner. "We're just doing construction."

"Come down the ladder now," the agent said again.

While this was going on, law enforcement agents in Newark, N.J., were arresting Brent, 30, and charging him with crimes that make everyone shudder. They say Brent, also known as Mahmud Al Mutazzim, has conspired to help the armed wing of a Pakistan-based religious organization labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. government. They say he attended an overseas terrorist camp and took martial arts training in trying to assist Lashkar-e-Taiba, which roughly translates as "Army of the Righteous."

"Oh, my," said Eloise Stephens, gazing up at the house where Brent had his apartment. She watched the roofers working again on the roof. "I've lived on this block 43 years and never seen the likes of this. Used to be there was a preacher who lived in this house, and then his daughter had it. And now we come to this."

Her voice carried a kind of longing. We want the old, changeless truths of yesteryear, and so many of them seem gone now. This section of Northwest Baltimore once seemed the very heart of such national stability.

My connections here go back half a century. I went to the old Howard Park Elementary, a few blocks away. We had Cub Scout meetings at the Howard Park Methodist Church, also a few blocks away. Every spring, the Howard Park Little League had us parade in our baseball uniforms through these streets, while grown-ups cheered from big front porches. You want a better picture of Americana, you can't find it anywhere - unless it was the old Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, a few blocks below, or the Read's Drug Store and the Ambassador Theater where Gwynn Oak Avenue meets Liberty Heights.

The neighborhood still feels like Norman Rockwell could comfortably pull out his paintbrushes here. The old amusement park's rickety roller coaster's gone, but it's replaced by a landscaped natural park where families picnic. Gwynn Oak Junction's still busy. There are churches dotting Gwynn Oak Avenue. In front of one, the Greater Remnant Church of God in Christ, a sign declares: "Caution. Slow down. God is at work here."

It's a sweet comic touch. But, in the current atmosphere, it raises a haunting question: Whose God?

In America, where we pride ourselves on religious tolerance, we feel a little queasy in the ongoing aftermath of Sept. 11. We're profiling each other: by religion, by skin tone, by the sound of a name. We caution ourselves not to stereotype an entire religion, any more than we would want our own religion stigmatized for the actions of some.

But the old assumptions are called into question now. We want to be tolerant, but we don't want to feel naive. We used to pride ourselves on trusting our neighbors. But now, on Gwynn Oak Avenue, they're pulling workers off a roof to make them sit at curbside while they check for criminal histories. And here was Eloise Stephens, 43 years on this block, who remembered a preacher living in this house, and she said she knew nothing at all about the newly arrested Brent.

"Who?" she said, still not knowing his name.

"The terrorist," somebody said.

"Wait a minute," somebody else said. "Who said he's a terrorist? Nobody's been found guilty of anything. Damned Patriot Act lets 'em snatch anybody they want, even if they don't have any evidence."

The man said he didn't want to give his name. In a gathering of half a dozen people, he was the only one who goes unidentified. Because, in the current climate, we now point fingers at anyone with a minority opinion, anyone who questions the government arresting suspects and holding them, out of sight, under unknown conditions, until further notice. They are our neighbors. We used to imagine we knew our neighbors.

"I don't know," said Eloise Stephens. "If he's the man they say he is, it's enough to scare you out of your wits. They want to blow us all up, or contaminate the water, or anything. If they got an innocent man, then they should apologize, and God forgive me for thinking otherwise. But this is scary, thinking somebody was up there in that house who knows how to make bombs."

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