New Orleans resident Abdulrahman Zeitoun was with three friends in the living room when the looters came. Like most of the armed criminal gangs afflicting the city in Katrina’s wake, the marauders who confronted Mr. Zeitoun wore government-issued costumes.
Before the day’s end, the Syrian-born U.S. citizen — who had spent days paddling through the flooded streets in a canoe, rendering what aid he could to people trapped in their ruined homes — would be confined in a makeshift detention camp modeled after the notorious facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
No formal criminal charges were filed against Zeitoun. When he protested the denial of his due process rights and rudimentary decencies of living, he was told by the guards that he was under the jurisdiction of FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) — which meant that he was somebody else’s problem.
If it hadn’t been for an encounter with a Christian missionary ministering to the prisoners — a man Zeitoun believes was sent in literal answer to prayer — it’s likely that he and at least one of his friends, a fellow Syrian-American, would still be prisoners of the Department of Homeland Security.
Zeitoun was raised in the Syrian coastal town Jableh as part of a financially successful and well-regarded family. After migrating to New Orleans, Zeitoun found work with a local building contractor. Blessed with a strong work ethic and uncanny entrepreneurial instinct, he created a small house-painting business that quickly grew to include ownership of several rental properties — including the house from which he was kidnapped under the color of government “authority” the morning of September 6, 2005.
Just before Katrina hit the city, Zeitoun sent his wife Kathy and their four children to stay with friends in Houston. He remained behind to safeguard the house, look after the rental properties, and help wherever he could. On several occasions while he was rendering aid to stranded neighbors, Zeitoun encountered patrol craft carrying police or military personnel, who were too busy maintaining an intimidating faade to lend assistance.
Prior to his arrest, the only direct contact Zeitoun had with “authority” came in the form of a visit by “rescue” personnel in a government helicopter. At the time, Zeitoun was setting up his tent in the back yard of his home.
After several attempts by the weary Good Samaritan to communicate that he was fine and intended to stay, “one of the men in the helicopter decided to drop a box of water down to him,” recounts Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Eggers in his book Zeitoun. He tried to wave them off again, “to no avail. The box came down, and Zeitoun leapt out of the way before it knocked the tent flat and sent plastic bottles everywhere.” The government employees, having “helped” the resident by demolishing his shelter, flew away to impart similar assistance elsewhere.
While Zeitoun was helping his neighbors, the police — including the officers who would materialize in his living room to arrest him on suspicion of “looting” — were helping themselves to whatever they wanted.