Volume 32, Number 4

Punishing Potential

Michael W. Clark

So when the FBI and DHS made the unusual request of the Chair of the Social Sciences Department at Paramount Community College, that being, if they could arrest Dr. Lebonana on the college campus, the Chair shrugged a non-committal acquiescence. She kept her glee to herself. She had always suspected that Lebonana wanted her job. It was obvious by his wearing of those suits. His desire to appear as an sdministrator before being one was so obvious.

This is good, she thought. His ambition will never be fulfilled, never happen. Not now. Of course, she was wrong about Dr. Lebonana’s ambition, as she was wrong about her suspicions of most of her colleague’s ambitions, that being wanting her job. She always thought everyone around her must have the same ambition as she did.

Why wouldn’t they? she would always ask herself.

On the other hand, Dr. Lebonana could never understand why anyone would want, actively desire, to attempt to lead a group of squabbling, suspicious, jealous academics anywhere or anytime, unless it was forced upon you at the point of a gun, and he had a number of guns pointed at him in his early life. Keeping students quiet and focused so they could learn something was hard enough, ambition enough for any intelligent person.

“Why would I want more anxiety than I already have?” Dr. Lebonana would reply each time his wife mentioned that he should put his name up for Chair. She was much more ambitious than he was. His few academic articles on Political Science caused more than enough extra anxiety for him.

It was Monday; thus, he was wearing his best suit when the agents of the FBI and DHS violently pushed open the lecture-hall doors and swarmed into the classroom. The members of the class laughed. They thought it was the Drama department doing a performance-art piece again. Faux police-state actions were common events on the Los Angeles campus. They always got a laugh. Blue States always got a laugh at the expense of the Police State. Even Dr. Lebonana first drew this conclusion. He didn’t like the interruption, but students do these creative things.

“So, what can one do?” he would shrug.

But like everyone that day, they and he were wrong. The pinching, cold metal handcuffs showed Dr. Lebonana just how wrong he was. The ankle cuffs demonstrated to the majority of the class that they were wrong. Most of them stopped laughing at the ankle cuffs, when the students finally noticed that the automatic weapons appeared real, so real that they had to be real. These were real agents possessing actual machines of death and killing. All of this was no fiction. It was serious. Life threateningly serious, deathly serious, and then many of the young women screamed. A few of the braver young men yelled out, “Stop!” Their objection only caused barrels of those death devices to be pointed in the braves' direction. The threat and fear of death suddenly struck the members of the class like a tsunami. It drowned them into silence. Silence in all except one, and that wasn’t Dr. Lebonana. He tried but couldn’t say anything, not even a moan.

It was one member of the class who continued to laugh. Pauling Shopette laughed. It was no surprise to the class. Pauling Shopette was the class annoyance. Everyone groaned when Pauling raised his hand—if he raised his hand. Usually he just spoke out, interrupting anyone, even Dr. Lebonana. Especially, Dr. Lebonana. Everyone hated Pauling Shopette. He did everything to make certain of that. So Pauling laughed while everyone else was dealing with some form of shock. His laughter reminded the class why they hated Pauling Shopette.

Dr. Lebonana wasn’t thinking about the class, whether in love or in hate. His brain was barely functioning. He could hardly stand. The agents’ commands were not comprehended by him. Mostly, Dr. Lebonana didn’t notice that they were speaking. When the agents pushed Dr. Lebonana, he finally understood to move. The ankle cuffs made him shuffle when he obeyed. A shuffle by definition was slow. The agents wanted him to move faster, so another futile set of pushes. If they wanted him to move any faster, they shouldn’t have put on the ankle cuffs. Eventually, this conclusion became clear to the agents, so in their frustration, they picked Dr. Lebonana up by each restrained appendage and carried him at their desired speed to their waiting black van, his immediate destination. It was black on the outside and the inside, black and dark. Dr. Lebonana was thrown and locked into the dark maw of the van. He was very alone.

As he lay there in the darkness and the silence, Dr. Lebonana checked for his mobile phone. It was gone. So was his watch, his wallet, his keys, his belt, even his plain white cotton handkerchief. He hadn’t noticed the agents doing this. Extracting all of his personal items; all of his person. His tie, vest and suit coat, of course, were also gone.

“My best suit!” were the very first words Dr. Lebonana managed to say. Words of regret; of despair. His intonation didn’t matter, because he was the only one there to hear those words.

Complete darkness and total silence inhibit the passage of time. No, it blocks the personal experience of time flying like an arrow. It was a suspension from the universe of time and space. An effective suppression of reality. Obviously, this affect was the entire point of the dark black van and all that would follow. This suppression of reality was so efficient that Dr. Lebonana didn’t ask himself why this was happening to him until after they yanked him out of the mobile darkness and threw him into the stationary darkness of his small cell. It had a toilet. He could smell it. No effective way to suppress smells. His handcuffs were removed at some unnoticed point. The ankle cuffs weren’t. They were unnecessary; Dr. Lebonana would never run in the dark.

Only at that point did he ask, “What have I done?”

It didn’t appear that there was anyone else there to listen, but likely someone was listening to it all.


Mrs. Lebonana was told about Dr. Lebonana’s … abduction? arrest? by one of the shocked students. Mrs. Lebonana, of course, immediately called the Chair of the Department to ask her what had happened.

The Chair stated simply, “I don’t know.” It was true. She had made certain that this statement was true by not asking the agents any whats or whys or any questions at all. Truthfulness was the most efficient of responses, mostly. That might change with the situation. Situations usually did change, so followed the need for truth, but not yet here.

Mrs. Lebonana did not take “I don’t know” for an answer and called all of the other authority types she could think of. They all gave up approximately the same answer as did the Chair, but with less efficiency in wording. “We have no information on that situation,” was the shortest of these responses.

Even the FBI and DHS said something similar. It was likely true for everyone Mrs. Lebonana actually spoke with. Agencies never speak, only people do, and people never have enough information if any at all. Mrs. Lebonana had grown up in Lebanon. She had experienced this firsthand too many times before. You had to find, to speak directly to the one or two persons that did know something. Of course, you can almost never find those persons.

One of the unknowing people though, had attempted to comfort her by saying, “Maybe you should call the Lebanese Embassy?”

“But we have been U.S. citizens for six years.” Mrs. Lebonana thought this was a reasonable conclusion. “How could they help?”

The attempted comforting person grunted with doubt and then said, “Still, I think it would be best.”

The U.S. State Department unknowing person agreed with the other unknowing individual. They added, though, “We don’t have jurisdiction over U.S. citizens within the U.S.A.”

“Then who does?” Mrs. Lebonana was attempting to remain calm in a very unsettling, non-calm situation.

“DHS,” came the State department voice. Followed by an uncertain qualification, “I think?”

“I already spoke to them.” Mrs. Lebonana wanted to scream but simply said, “They don’t know anything either.”

“A common reality,” came the State department voice. “I am sorry.” And the smallest part of that agency hung up with that person.

Mrs. Lebonana didn’t know who to call to get a lawyer. Academics don’t have lawyers. So she called the California Bar Association.

They “advised” (their emphasis), “You should call the Islamic Law Aid Association. I think that’s what they call it?”

“But we’re not. My husband is not Islamic. We are, have always been, Christians.” Mrs. Lebonana sighed.

“Oh, excuse me, but you said you were from Lebanon?” The voice was genuinely confused.

Mrs. Lebonana didn’t want to explain the obvious and simply, quietly disconnected the questionable connection. Mrs. Lebonana finally gave in to tears and cried. She expressed the sorrow of the uncertain, of uncertainty. She had thought, she had hoped, she had left uncertainty behind in Lebanon. She hadn’t. The obvious was too obvious now.


Dr. Lebonana sat in the dark. The hallway he had just walked down was dark too. His cell was dark. It was always dark. All was darkness here. It wasn’t quiet, though. Footfalls, mumbles, the random shouted command, the occasional groan and a background electronic whine. Dr. Lebonana finally figured out that whine: night-vision goggles. No visible light needed. There was a table before him. He knew that because he was chained to it. The shuffling of shoes revealed others were in the room.

“Why am I here?” Dr. Lebonana spoke, this time to someone.

“Like you don’t know?” came a voice out of the darkness. It was simply the fact that there was a comment that surprised Dr. Lebonana, not the content of the comment. In a place like this, content didn’t matter.

“I don’t know.”

“Why do you hate America?”

“I love America. America gave me a job I love.” Dr. Lebonana was sincere but he knew that didn’t matter either.

“Then why do you hate America?”

“I don’t.”

“Islamic Terrorists do!”

“Maybe, but I am a Christian.”

“They all say that at first.”

“They all say all of this at first.” Came another voice. They were both male voices.

“I’ve been a Christian my entire life. I’ve been an American citizen for six years. All legal. Processed appropriately.” Dr. Lebonana insisted upon always doing the paperwork properly and thoroughly. “You can see my immigration files. I’ll sign over that right to you to look.”

“We have your file already.”

“We know it thoroughly.”

“So why do you hate America?”

“I don’t.” Dr. Lebonana attempted to remain calm. He knew anxiety was coming. He wanted to stall its coming forward as long as he could. “Then you must know about my heart condition. I have a nervous disposition, malformed valves or something. I will cooperate fully.”

“They all say that too.”

“Yeap. They all say all of this. No imagination.”

“No imagination at all.”

“But my friends.” Dr. Lebonana attempted a familiar chuckle. “I am totally in the dark about all of this. Ha! Ha!”

“They all say that too!”

“Sick of that pun.”

“Enlighten me!” Dr. Lebonana still tried.

“Sick of that one too.”

That was when the anxiety started. Dr. Lebonana hated to feel pain, most everybody did. Dr. Lebonana was so confused, so the anxiety rose. “How do you confess to something that you don’t know what it is at all?”


They had both grown up in Beirut, during its perpetual destruction. There weren’t armed camps back then, it was armed chaos. They had both learned on their own that violence never took sides. Violence was unbiased. Violence was violence, as death was death. It had no religious or political affiliation. So, she knew anything could happen that anything usually did happen. Born Americans seemed to be blind to this obvious fact. She just needed to try to find him, to keep trying. He would do it for her. She had to do it for him. It still made her cry. It made her quake with fear.

They both knew to keep in the background. Keep a low profile was best. “It was those suits,” she cried out into the dark living room. She had turned off the air conditioning to remind her of home. Home was where you had to be careful, had to be cautious, always. California had made them lazy, had allowed complacency.

“Those damned suits!” she screamed into the black heat. “You had to stand out. You had to look professional. Bah! You made yourself a target!” She just cried. It was the only thing she had complete control over. She could cry or not cry. She could start or stop at will. There was no reason not to cry now. Whatever trigger it was had already been pulled. Her life, his life was in flight, propelled through the hot dry darkness. Where was the ground? The worst of uncertainties. You know the ground was coming up at you, but when? It was the timing. It was the amount of time that was unknown, the ultimate source of anxiety. She knew the end. An impact would come eventually. The end won’t surprise her. The end was inevitable. Just when? When? Still, she had to try to find him, try to find out where he was. What he did or didn’t do didn’t matter. Facts never mattered to violence. Only finding him mattered and her tears. Her tears now mattered because she wanted them to.


Pauling Shopette couldn’t stop giggling. He had been giggling for hours and hours, and then he would giggle some more. His little revenges seldom worked and never had worked so well. Lebonana deserved it. The whole class deserved it, but that Lebonana deserved it most. Pauling knew this subject better than that stupid Arab. Why the college let him teach, Pauling would tsk-tsk-tsk over with genuine confusion.

“I should be teaching this class,” Pauling said at least once a week. He understood the major concepts, saw them better than most. And Lebonana refused to let him speak. Lebonana encouraged the class to turn on Pauling. “It was unfair!” The class was telling Pauling to shut up! How could they be so deluded?

“Silly, foolish world.” Pauling tsked again.

But this little revenge had worked so well. Pauling hadn’t been sure anyone would notice. Fifty dollars here. Fifty dollars there. To major Islamic Terrorist Front organizations in Lebonana’s name. It was all he could afford. Funding terrorism at such a minor level? Pauling thought it might be too little for someone to notice. Faking the e-mail address must have helped. Although notice they did! They noticed dramatically well! Satisfyingly well. Excitingly well! Right in front of the class. What a show! “Professor, profess thyself!”

But nothing on the TV or hardcopy news. Nothing useful on the internet except some of the class complaining. “The simple-minded are easily brainwashed.” Pauling giggled again. “And by such a simple-minded man.” Pauling giggled as he straightened his tie. “But I did like his suits.”


Dr. Lebonana lay on the cold dark floor of his cell. It could have been any cell in the dark. A toilet smelled the same. He hadn’t cried since he was six years old. His mother had died as he held her hand in the rubble-filled street. Her blood drained into the decimated sewer system of Beirut. Her breathing was shallow. She mumbled the Lord’s Prayer. He cried. He cried beside her until she died. All her blood gone. Left was her silence. It silenced him. He never cried again. Nothing was ever so bad as her death. He couldn’t cry now. He seemed to have forgotten how. It had been so long.

He had tried confessing, but they, the dark interrogators, wanted details, not simply acquiescence. He had no details to give. He couldn’t fabricate details for something he didn’t know. They still hadn’t been forthcoming about the charges. Even if there were charges?

Maybe, his eyes couldn’t cry but it seemed that his heart could. It shouted distress in his chest. It wept openly. He had told the interrogators.

They had just laughed. “Everyone always says that.”

So he lay in the dark on the floor alone. So alone it appeared that his heart was going to abandon him soon. Maybe his life would drain away through the drain grille in the floor. Flow into the sewer just like his mother’s. It was worth crying for, but still, he couldn’t. It really didn’t matter.


Finally, she had found him or rather he had found her; found her in a way. The USA—GAO contacted her that they desired her to come pick up his body. She had to sign a release to get “it.”

She would not cry now. There was no need now. There was no uncertainty left. The ground was very obvious now. She just had to finish the inevitable, but she would show some resistance.

“There is no it. I want my husband back.” Mrs. Lebonana sat in a weak wooden chair. It creaked even though she hadn’t moved since she sat down.

The GAO representative was named Pat Folding. Neither the name nor Pat’s appearance revealed a gender. Pat was pale and thin in both body and voice. “Whatever. I am instructed to release, ah, your husband’s body and a check for twenty-five thousand dollars only after the paperwork is completed. You must sign these releases.”

“Releases?” Mrs. Lebonana knew what was to be released. She just wanted Pat to say it.

“Yes, releasing, the remains, ah of your husband and releasing the United States government from any responsibility in your husband’s, ah, unfortunate death.”

“Cause of death?” Mrs. Lebonana knew all of this. It was inevitable, but he would do it for her.

“Ah.” Pat rustled some papers. “Ah, heart, ah, heart failure. Natural causes. Heart failure.” Pat didn’t look up.

“Nothing natural about these causes.” Mrs. Lebonana nodded.

“I know nothing, ah, about your statement, accusation. I am directed to process, ah, release, ah, complete the paperwork.”

“And if I don’t sign?” Mrs. Lebonana knew the answer. She just wanted it said aloud.

“No check. No remains.” Pat frowned at the flimsy desk between them. It was cluttered with neat stacks of paper. Its impression was contradictory.

“He will officially disappear?” She knew.

“It will never have existed.” Pat didn’t look up.

Mrs. Lebonana knew it all. She signed. She needed to get him. He would have done it for her. She signed all of the GAO forms. She signed all the forms the government required. As she left with her husband she began to cry. She cried and cried. Dr. Lebonana, of course, could not.


“He shouldn’t dish it out if he couldn’t take it,” was Pauling Shopette’s only verbal comment about Dr. Lebonana being dead. The rest of his commentary was in giggles. Various rates and patterns of giggles. Pauling would watch himself in the mirror as he giggled. It made him giggle more.

He wished he could tell Betty Thomason about the success of his little revenge, but she likely wouldn’t understand; few people ever did. He hadn’t asked her out yet. She needed to see him in action in class some more; then, of course, she would agree. She would soon appreciate him. How could anyone resist?