The trouble for Kurtz started in May of 2004, when his wife died suddenly in her sleep. Police came out to investigate the unexpected death, and while searching the home, they found harmless scientific and art supplies, which they claimed were evidence of terrorism.
Over the next almost-four years, a bundle of alphabet agencies did their best to misrepresent Kurtz and his art supplies as a threat to our security, but -- amazingly -- the case against him was thrown out of court, with a federal judge calling the government's entire indictment "insufficient on its face."
Kurtz spoke with Amy Goodman the other day; here's an excerpt from their conversation:
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to our next story, almost unfathomable, but true, about art in a time of terror. Even Kafka might have had trouble conjuring up this one.Thus began the incredible -- but true -- saga. Well, maybe it's not so incredible anymore, not in BushLand. If a skyscraper a quarter of a mile tall can disintegrate in 10 seconds -- just because of gravity -- and if that can happen three times in the same day -- but only on that day -- then nothing's incredible anymore, is it?
Steve Kurtz is a professor of visual studies at SUNY, Buffalo — that’s State University of New York, Buffalo — a founding member of the award-winning art and theater group, Critical Art Ensemble. On May 11, 2004, his wife Hope tragically died in her sleep. When he called 911 for help, a nightmare that would last for the next four years began to unfold.
The police became suspicious of his art supplies and harmless bacteria cultures that he was using for an antiwar project about the public health impact of germ warfare programs. Kurtz was detained as a suspected bioterrorist, his home raided by the FBI, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, Homeland Security. His belongings, his cat, even his wife’s body, were seized.
After a federal grand jury refused to charge Kurtz with bioterrorism, Kurtz and his colleague Robert Ferrell of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health were charged with federal mail and wire fraud concerning the acquisition of $256 of harmless bacteria. Under the PATRIOT Act, they could have faced up to twenty years in prison.
After four harrowing years, on April 21, a federal judge dismissed the government’s entire indictment against Kurtz as “insufficient on its face.” He’s been cleared of all charges.
Why don’t you tell us your story, beginning that day, May 11, 2004?
STEVE KURTZ: Well, that was a very dark day for me. I woke up that morning and found that my wife had died in her sleep. And kind of after a moment of shock that slowly broke into a kind of panic, I made my way to the telephone, called 911. They came quite rapidly. And as they looked around, they did as they had to do when a woman who, quite young at this age, forty-five, dies in their home and called the police. And the police came out and secured my home, and then three detectives showed up. And for the rest of that day, I was pretty much interrogated as a murder suspect.
And one of the things that caught the police attention’s eye was my home lab, which was filled with pretty basic innocuous equipment that I primarily use for molecular biology, for DNA experiments. And they wondered why I had that, and I explained to them that I was a professor at UB, University of Buffalo, and that my specialty was the intersection between art and science, and this was part of the basic equipment I needed to have, that the university didn’t supply us studios, so we had to create our own space for it. And, you know, I showed them work I had done online, showed them my resume, showed them catalogs. But they weren’t particularly convinced by that, and they were more convinced by the idea that if someone has scientific equipment in their home that they’re probably up to something nefarious. And as the detectives left that afternoon, they were of the opinion that the FBI was going to want to talk to me.
So the following day, as I went out to go to the funeral home to make arrangements for my wife’s cremation, about three or four FBI cars came screeching up, and I was put into illegal detention and basically soft-rendered, meaning I didn’t have to get drugged and flown off to Guantanamo. It was much nicer than that. It was the pleasant way to get rendered. They take you to a hotel and hold you there without charge, without being Miranda-ized, and put you through a lighter style of interrogation.
When the police initially searched the Kurtz home, they found an invitation with Arabic writing on it. They used this bit of Arabic to "prove" that Steve Kurtz was a terrorist, and this "proof" was then used to "justify" a warrant.
Nothing could have been further from the truth, but it doesn't matter anymore, not in BushLand.
STEVE KURTZ: And when the prosecutor was questioned about it in the first hearing, the judge asked, "You mean if he had a Koran in his house, you would have confiscated that and used that in this manner?" And the prosecutor said, "Yes."Well, there you have it. If you can read or write Arabic, or if you possess the tiniest sample of Arabic writing, even if you doesn't understand what it says, you may not actually be a bioterrorist, but you'd better be very wary of the police, especially if your wife happens to die in the middle of the night.
But don't worry; they're keeping us safe from art teachers.