Report — From the September 2013 issue

Life as a Terrorist

Uncovering my FBI file

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VOLLMANN said that he is “an American first and would never do anything to hurt this country.”
— Department of Homeland Security,
report of investigation, 2005


In 1966, John Steinbeck completed a book called America and Americans — an appropriate subject for the writer I have always considered the most American of us all. Ruefully clear-eyed and sometimes furious about our national faults (“From the first we have treated our minorities abominably”), this brave, decent, sentimental man, a sincere thinker but not a deep one, a patriot who loved the idea of freedom — which for him included the proposition that a migrant farmworker deserves to hold his head up as high as any priest or president — will have my affection as long as I live. In America and Americans, he gently ridicules and sweetly praises the “home dream.” Our national form of this archetype is predicated on memories of a log cabin or sod house in the wilderness, a place we built for ourselves according to our own free notions, ours to cherish or abandon, and, most of all, “a place to which a man could return with joy and slough off his weariness and his fears.”

In Steinbeck’s time, the United States was increasingly prosperous and triumphalist. Americans, he feared, might be

on the verge of moral and hence nervous collapse . . . we have reached the end of the road and have no new path to take, no duty to carry out, and no purpose to fulfill.

Not quite half a century later, I offer this modest epilogue to his essay. The subject remains America and Americans; but my immediate aim is to shed however feeble a light on a semi-invisible yet increasingly omnipresent class: the Unamericans.

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’s most recent book is Imperial (Penguin). His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Homeless in Sacramento,” appeared in the March 2011 issue.

More from William T. Vollmann:

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  • Eiremanlite, Austin Texas

    What William Vollmann describes is appalling. He reveals the insidious way that what American citizens can expect of its security overseers is an ever-lowering bar; the absence of outrage is perhaps the most startling revelation, especially in the wake of the latest round of Snowden-inspired announcements about surveillance on the American people.

    What are we to make of this? Anyone who remembers the attempt to repair the porous privacy situation that existed at the end of the Nixon era, in the form especially of the Frank Church-led reforms (such as the FISA court establishment) can now justifiably shrug in self-righteous cynicism that we never learn from our mistakes. As Gore Vidal calls it, we are the United States of Amnesia, or at least of Indifference or Resignation.

    Sad in the extreme.

  • marco

    Courageous story William tells here. I first heard this on radio in my car and came to the website.

    With everything he went through, I believe it’s a good time to revisit the following story as well:

    “Protesters Detained in Milwaukee: Are You on the No Fly List?”

  • bobw

    None of this requires any sort of conspiracy. There need be no evil plot. The people who opened and maintain the files on William Vollmann are not especially un-American. They are human. They are bureacrats.

    In a bureacracy, if the potential downside of doing something is greater than the upside, people do nothing. There is no upside to closing William Vollmann’s file. The potential downside of closing a file for someone who, however improbably, *may* turn out to be a terrorist is enormous.

    Pressure to close the file might come if resources are scarce. There would then be a downside to spending any time on William Vollmann’s case instead of more probable suspects.

    The FBI counter-terrorism unit is by no means strapped for cash. They will never close his case.

  • peter

    I heard about the article on the radio and signed up for 2 years of Harper’s so I could read it. Very interesting and sad. Even if you are more concerned about terrorists than privacy, shouldn’t the waste of taxpayer resources alone be enough to provoke demands for reform?

  • Ulysses Not yet home

    Shortly after 9/11 (shortly = 2 years) myself, my wife, and our daughter, flew to Washington DC for a funeral. We flew one way, with out a return trip scheduled, because we planned to take the Acela train from Washington to New Jersey, and then fly home from there. The fact of a single, non return flight to Washington DC was sufficient to begin our surveillance. We were partially strip searched, our luggage searched thoroughly and questioned separately, in a clumsy, and obvious attempt to “trip us up”. The paranoid surveillance state is completely insane, and hopelessly out of control.

  • scrivenerNP

    As seen on Twitter:



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