09/24/2007 10:54 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Musicologist Who Wasn't Allowed in the Country

George Bush's war against terror has a new scalp to hang by the fireplace in the Green Room. No, Osama is still looking for cave-front property on the outskirts of Tora Bora, but the American public can rest easy knowing that the vigilant guardians of our borders have kept a musicologist -- with expertise in the music of the English composer Sir Edward Elgar -- from our shores.

If this story was not so bone-chillingly scary, it would be the stuff of low farce. Nalini Ghuman is a musicologist, a British citizen of Welsh-Indian heritage. She received her Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley, and she is a Professor of Music at Mills College in Oakland. She is esteemed as one of the world's preeminent scholars on the musical works of Sir Edward Elgar. She appears to have as much involvement with terrorists as Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi has with astrophysics.

Professor Ghuman's trip down the rabbit hole began on August 8, 2006, when she returned to San Francisco from a trip overseas. Her passport was in order and her visa was valid. She was stopped by "the authorities" and advised that she was not permitted to enter the United States. She was told that unless she returned to London that evening, she would be jailed. Her requests for contact with the British consulate were denied. Her visa was torn up. She has been denied entry into the United States ever since.

We can omit any and all discussion of "illegal immigration" in that she was entering this country entirely legally. And we can forget any argument that Professor Ghuman is a terrorist, a supporter of terrorists, or a terrorist sympathizer/enabler. Despite my personal opinion of the merit of Elgar's works, a study of them does not serve as cause for the denial of admission to the United States.

Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, was quoted as having referred to this case as an example of xenophobia, incompetence, stupidity and then bureaucratic intransigence. You might think this to be bombast or hyperbole. It is, rather, understatement.

What this case brings out in stark relief is the mindset of the Cro-Magnons at Homeland Security, and the deeply disturbing fact that in Bush's war on terror, civil liberties, freedoms and roughly 225 years of American law are seen as being trivial annoyances that must yield to "the reality on the ground." But having crafted that "reality on the ground" out of whole cloth -- which is a nice way of saying "having made up the facts and thus made up the reality" -- no one is permitted to question it, and the full panoply of rights previously thought to safeguard one's right to question it are meaningless.

It does not require a catalog of abuses by "the authorities" to understand that the basic mindset of Department of Homeland Security is exactly that of a bunch of thugs: We've got the hammer, and either you surrender at the sight of it or we will use it with great glee upon your cranium and vital organs. It is the mindset of a Mafia enforcer of a protection racket; it is the mindset of Heinrich Himmler. It has no place in the United States of America.

All of this is of a piece with the general attitude of the Bush administration that it is entirely fitting, proper, and correct to endow a group of morons incapable of holding down a decent job with 100 percent of the coercive power of the State. A uniformed dolt of the Transportation Safety Administration has the full power to seize a tube of spermicidal jelly from the carry-on bag of a 53-year-old woman, somehow, by a florid leap of magical thinking, justifying the theft on the grounds of thwarting terrorism. A perfectly innocent, benign, and properly documented musicologist is refused entry into the United States, no explanation given, no rights afforded, not even a phone call -- all in flagrant violation of law. The idea, I suppose, is that this is a way to accustom the American people to knuckling under to the imbecile demands of thugs, which is as good a way as any to inure us to the steady erosion of our liberty. You would think that those who make such a fetish of the "original meaning" of the Constitution would be manning the barricades, broken bourbon bottle in one hand and a dirk in the other, to protest such mindless totalitarianism. Sadly, you'd think wrong.

Matters are made even worse -- if possible -- by the inadequate response of the United States government to the appalling treatment of Professor Ghuman. University professors and presidents can get no answer. Senators can get no answer. Our own embassy in London cannot get answers. National security, don't you know. The embassy in London seems to have concluded that this mess was the result of "mistaken identity" but no one in Washington will 'fess up to the error, and until that happens "nothing can be done." Kafka would have been pleased.

One would hope that by this point the blissful slumber of America's citizens would be disturbed by the incessant ringing of fire bells in the night. And if the illegal, deplorable treatment meted out to Professor Nalini Ghuman adds to the national discomfort, so much the better. Today it is this scholar who has done nothing wrong who has been made a sacrifice on the altar of national security. I'd really prefer not to contemplate who it might be tomorrow.