When I heard that my old friend/enemy the FBI was going to hold a recruitment event at USC — in cooperation with the student group Weapon of Choice Inc. — I hatched what I thought would be an amusing plan. As an Arab-American who just might have a rosy future in U.S. spy operations, I wanted to see how intimate I could get with the FBI without actually signing anything. Who would lead the greater intelligence operation, I wondered, the journalist disguised as self-hating Arab or the FBI agents able to stoke my patriotism, dormant since the aftermath of 9/11?
The recruitment fair was affectionately called “One on One With the FBI” and aimed to “bring awareness of the many career opportunities available with the FBI,” according to the enthusiastic ads. But on the day of the event, USC’s Alumni Park had been cordoned off like a crime scene, creating more of a disturbance than an attraction. Some perplexed South Asian students took a detour from their usual shortcut through the park, walking nervously around an FBI martial-arts display complete with violent kicks and tough-guy shouting.
I tried to enter the so-called “simulated FBI training facility” as stealthily as possible, but immediately my cover was blown by a perky volunteer who, judging by her voice, seemed like she might have an 818 number: “Hey you, come inside! We’ve got SUPER delicious Mediterranean food, it’s awesome!” she exclaimed. “These people are SUPER nice, they sent their NICEST agents, I swear!”
I wondered why she had to specify that the agents were nice, and if this was to compensate for other agents who might be unspeakably scary. Before I could blink, she stamped my hand with the words “FBI EVENT.” I was already in the system.
In clusters of three or four, FBI special agents accosted students, many of whom had come to sample the free “Mediterranean” cuisine, a euphemism for, in this case, Turkish (!) food. The agents wore blue-and-yellow jackets in what appeared to be an attempt at stoking college spirit. Did they forget that the colors of USC’s pride are red and gold?
Weapon of Choice Inc. had promised a basic-training area where participants could “test their physical and mental agility” and “complete a challenging obstacle course.” As a kid, I never got to play war games, and always daydreamed about shooting bad guys and playing with GI Joe, American Hero. In my house, this was all unacceptable Republican ideology, and the thought of fulfilling a taboo fantasy tantalized me.
But the obstacle course, I discovered, was inflatable and cute. Shaped like a series of sphincters, it looked stupid, like something you might distract children with at a birthday party. Then a DJ (or hipness consultant) hired for the festivities lifted my spirits with a Gloria Estefan song that was strategically laced with an Arabian flute melody — the kind that supposedly charms snakes — part of a Latin-Arab seduction that would take place over the course of the day.
A friend called on my cell phone as I was checking out the food and asked, “How’s recruitment going?”
“So far,” I told her, “there’s a lot of Middle Eastern food but no Middle Eastern people.”
Mostly there were Latinos and African-Americans, one with intricately shaped sideburns, another decked out in an oversize North Face jacket, sagging pants and classic beige construction boots. The DJ, perhaps recognizing this surprising demographic or perhaps just to be ironic, put on the reggaetón version of “La Tortura,” by the half-Latina, half-Lebanese Shakira. Was it well-advised to play music about torture? Actually, it was a genius FBI move — more seduction — to use Shakira’s heritage to build another bridge to the Arab world for Latinos, many of whom could easily double as one of my Saudi cousins and pass on the Arab street.
Real Arabs, on the other hand, might have been put off by the placards placed throughout the area to seemingly paint an intimidating image of the FBI: “Did you know? FBI agents must carry a firearm at all times while on duty.” “Did you know? The primary mission of the FBI is to defend the USA against terrorism.” And, best of all, an attack on the American work force: “Accomplishment? FBI Special Agents accomplish more in one year than most people do in an entire career.”
Another obstacle to recruitment was the preponderance of FBI agents with haircuts that were distinctly not L.A., or at least not L.A. in the last 10 years. Could it be any more obvious that the FBI agents were only visiting? There were mullets with not one but two gradations, and high-tops only slightly more modest than Kid ’N Play’s. Haircuts more likely to be seen in a Des Moines airport. I hadn’t seen some of these styles since 2002, when I was an intern at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and we had all been invited to FBI training headquarters in Quantico, Virginia. That’s where the real action was: with live ammo, a shooting range straight out of The X-Files, and an incredible video-game simulation — better than Sega’s House of the Dead — where players conducted sting operations on down-and-out actors who looked like they’d been on Jerry Springer or Cops the week before. Points would get deducted for shooting a dog or someone passed out on a couch. That afternoon, my friend Khaled and I took a picture in front of J. Edgar Hoover’s statue — arms around his broad bronze shoulders — with our middle fingers extended.
I finally had my one-on-one with an FBI agent, an affable Filipino man. “What skills do you have?” he asked, sizing me up. “Oh, some French, German and Arabic.” On the last syllable, his eyes became very wide. Was he hungry? “Wow, you’ll be light-years ahead of some of the others in training.” He handed me an informational packet with a hopeful smile, and we parted ways . . . forever if I can help it.