The Short Ballad of Hassan the Terrorist

I met Hassan in Castle Tam, the San Juan, Costa Rica hostel that was called “John’s House of Wayward Misfits,” by a disgruntled former employee that had bailed to other employment. John was the owner; Hassan was a tenet who was trying to find employment there, having partied his way down to his last hundred dollars. Even though John was a surly bitch who had no business being in the customer-service industry, Hassan was able to charm himself into the job. He just had that sort of intelligence and charisma.

One night, while drinking boxed Chilean Merlot and ripping on a plastic bong, Hassan let loose with the following tale.


Hassan’s parents were influenced by the Black Muslim movement in LA during the 70’s. They dropped their politics and faiths while Hassan was in utero, but his first, middle and fabricated last names were already chosen, all from the Holy Quran. Besides, his parents loved the name, its history, its sound…ha…SAHN.

“They told me it was the late 70’s, so the Muslim name wasn’t a thing…yeah, come the early 80’s, it was.”

Shortly after 9/11, Hassan was at the LAX airport on his way to Seattle, accompanied by his friend and drug-dealer Mike, who had frosted hair and an Italian-American surname. Mike strode through security, whistling, and then Hassan was up. The TSA agent scanned his passport, then immediately shot her eyes up with a look of fear.

“You’re…you’re going to have to step to the side, um, sir…right over there…just stand right there and don’t move from that area.”

Keeping her eyes glued nervously to Hassan, the TSA agent reached behind her to a red, unmarked phone plastered to the wall. The phone dialed automatically, and, in less than a minute, three TSA agents rushed over, barely restraining themselves from sprinting.

One of the TSA agents stood between Hassan and the ramp to the plane, while another blocked the escape-route to the rest of the airport. They both had their arms folded tight over their chests, angry looks in their eyes and nervous movements twitching through the rest of their bodies.

Hassan thought it had something to do with Mike’s position as a mid-level ecstasy dealer in LA. Mike, fidgeting nervously between the checkpoint and the boarding ramp, shot a look at Hassan while silently mouthing “what the fuck is going on?” Hassan threw his hands up in confusion.

“Who are you talking to? Who are you trying to communicate with?” the head TSA agent demanded. He swiveled his head over to Mike, who looked terrified. The agent saw what Mike looked like and turned back to whatever he was doing on the computer.

“Hassan?”—one of the agents with folded arms—”Hassan, you’re going to have to calm down immediately.”

“What? I AM calm.”

“Hassan”—the TSA agent to Hassan’s back—“calm down and stop moving around now.”

“WHAT is going on?”

“Sir, stop talking and just stay put.”

“I JUST want to know WHAT’S going on.”

The TSA agent behind Hassan pressed a button on his radio and, a few seconds later, two National Guardsman ran over with their fingers cocked around the triggers of their M-16s.

One of them spoke:

“Sir, you’re going to have to come with us immediately.”

Hassan nearly lost it. His voice was strained with anger and fear. He threw his hands up, palms defensively turned outwards.

“I’m not going ANYWHERE with you people until you tell me WHAT is GOING ON!”

The national guardsman shot each other wide-eyed looks. The one to the right raised his weapon slightly while the other stepped up to Hassan while reaching for something tucked in his heavy belt…

The red phone rang. Everyone who had gathered—the two National Guardsman, the four TSA agents, Hassan, Mike and the numerous horrified-looking onlookers—turned their heads to the noise. The original TSA lady snatched it up and paused to clear her throat before whispering into the mouthpiece. She paused again for the response. When she hung up, she looked relaxed and smiled and nodded at the other security officials. The main TSA agent turned to Hassan, handing him back his passport.

“Sir, you are free to board the plane. Have a nice flight.”


The Terrorist Watch List is not available to the public. Even if Hassan, who was an apolitical atheist whose ancestors had arrived on a slave-ship and who had never left the country at this point in this life, had any reason to believe he was marked for suspicion and fear, he would have had no way to figure it out. In fact, it took him a few days in Seattle to unearth the reason for his humiliation.

“It’s just my name, that’s all it is.” Hassan’s sister, who shared his politically-fabricated surname but whose first name was Hana (the Muslim spelling of the Biblical name, but the US Department of Homeland Security isn‘t known for doing its homework), had never been received more than a passive glance at an airport checkpoint.

I said Hassan was apolitical. When I met him 12 years after this event, he was heavily involved in politics, a big debater who distrusted Obama as much as he had hated Bush II.

…and this was the reaction of a man who was only mildly fucked with by the US government. Extrapolate a couple degrees and a couple countries, where it’s extra-judicial drone executions and random midnight raids, and you see how the US creates his own enemies.


When Hassan on his way to Costa Rica, the young, black TSA girl who scanned his passport shot her eyes up at him in fear. Hassan, with his double-minority status, knew how to appear non-threatening. He emphasized his Cali accent and responded with a sad smile.

“It’s my name, isn’t it?”

The TSA girl’s eyes softened with regret as she reached behind her for the red phone.

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