It was about eight o’clock in the morning, sometime in September of 2015, when I woke up to the unmistakable cadence of cops knocking at my front door. I had only been asleep for a few hours, and already the furious light of God was bursting through the living room window, superheating the black canvas couch beneath me to around a thousand degrees Fahrenheit.
I didn’t answer the door. Whatever the cops were there for, I reasoned, it had nothing to do with me and I hadn’t seen anything. If I just pretended to remain asleep long enough, the police would eventually realize their terrible mistake and go away, the sun would burn itself out, my head would stop pounding in rhythm with the door, and I could go back to being peacefully unaware that any of these problems had ever existed in the first place.
At first, that plan seemed to be working. The knocking stopped and the sun relented. But when I opened my eyes to confirm that the coast was clear, I saw a plainclothes officer leering back at me through the open window, blocking out the sun and impatiently gesturing for me to open the damned door. At that point it seemed likely that if I continued to ignore him he’d have probable cause to break out the battering ram, so I caved.
When I opened the door, two Supercuts regulars in khakis and polos presented me with impressively laminated badges. One of the badges said San Diego Police Department, the other one said Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“I’m Special Agent ████ ██████ of the FBI, this is Detective █████ ██████ of San Diego PD,” the one with the crewcut said. “We’re looking for Joshua Watson. Is that you?”
I now know from experience that when every part of your brain is suddenly recruited to re-evaluate every paranoid fantasy that you’ve ever entertained, it produces a high-pitched ringing sound in your ears that completely prevents you from not bumbling your way through the next hour or so of conversation.
“Yeah, that’s me,” I offered. Somewhere out there, my shady billboard lawyer facepalmed.
“You’re not in any trouble,” he assured me, “we just want to talk. Can we come in?”
I demanded further explanation. Requested, really.
“We received reports that you’ve been posting stuff about ISIS online, and potentially learning Arabic,” he explained. “We’d like to ask you a few questions.”
I took a quick survey of my apartment, trying to imagine what it must look like to a federal agent. The entire unit was empty, save for myself, my laptop, a broken hookah, an Eiffel Tower lamp, and an exhausted old couch that I had been sleeping on for the past few nights.
“Yeah, sure. Come on in. My roommate and I are in the process of moving out,” I tried to explain. “I actually own a ton of very normal Ikea furniture, but it’s all in storage.”
But between the state of my apartment and the unkempt beard that I happened to be trying out at the time, I was already checking all of the boxes in the FBI field manual on identifying terrorist sleeper cells. There may well have been a photo of me sleeping on that couch on the cover spread.
I’d had exactly one job to do that morning: foist the couch off onto some Craigslist Guy so that we could turn in the apartment key and be done with illage View apartments for good. Instead, I found myself sitting in the center of that couch, flanked on either side by local and federal law enforcement, fielding all sorts of absurd questions while hoping that Craigslist Guy didn’t show up early with the truck.
They questioned me for the better part of an hour. What are your thoughts on the Syrian Civil War? What is you opinion of ISIS? Do you read Dabiq, the online magazine published by the Islamic State? Do you use WhatsApp? Viber? Kik Messenger? What is your Twitter handle? Why are you learning Arabic?
“All of these questions and more will be answered if you actually read the fucking articles that I wrote,” I did not say to the FBI. I’ve said a lot of stupid things to a lot of stupid cops in my life, but I generally know when it’s time to shut up and cooperate. This was almost certainly one of those times.
Instead, I explained that I had recently applied to graduate school in International Journalism and had been publishing relevant writing samples for the sake of appearing competent in the field. The articles in question were unambiguously non-sympathetic toward the Islamic State, variously referring to them as an ‘opportunistic infection’ and a ‘group of jihadi perverts,’ but who actually bothers to read articles? Not the FBI, it turns out.
Throughout the interrogation, they conducted themselves to the standards of white privilege and repeatedly reassured me, to an extent that only reinforced my paranoia, that I was not in any trouble. They make these sorts of visits all the time.
I tried to be affable in return, answering their questions to the best of my ability while mentally juggling many of my own. Am I being too dispassionate with my responses? Am I acting paranoid? Is this how a lone wolf terrorist would cross his legs? Should I have gone for a more confident manspread? Yeah, I may have perused Dabiq; will they believe that it was all in the interest of education?
And who the hell reported me for writing about ISIS?
They wouldn’t tell me.
Perhaps it was some enterprising Twitter vigilante, trolling the feed for mentions of ISIS. Maybe it was a Facebook acquaintance. Maybe it was The Algorithm. Maybe it was you.
I’ll never know, but it was the ‘learning Arabic’ thing that really fucked with me. Most people who know me know that I can speak Farsi with about the fluency of a captive ape using sign language to demand grapes and apple juice, but I can’t speak Arabic to save my life. However, I had taken a single semester of Arabic in community college years prior. Had the FBI mistaken Farsi for Arabic, the incompetent bastards? Or were they actually probing that deep into my background?
It didn’t matter, the damage was done. The entire self-fulfilling prophecy had already been laid out before me. I’d be arrested on suspicion of Arabism and sent directly to the sensory deprivation chambers at Guantanamo Bay, my cell phone left between the couch cushions to be carried away by Craigslist Guy and quietly repurposed for the black market. I’d spend the next few decades of my life as a political prisoner, slowly becoming radicalized between waterboarding sessions and extraordinary-rendition trips to foreign jurisdictions with strong stomachs for brutal torture. By the time I would finally be released, I’d just be some raving lunatic, running around publicly calling for the execution of Salman Rushdie. The prophecy would be fulfilled, and no one would be surprised.
Surely he was always this way.
The interrogation ended as quickly as it had begun. We exchanged pleasantries and the FBI agent handed me his business card as he and the detective were leaving.
“If you have any questions, just give me a call,” he said.
“Right. And if I see anything suspicious on Twitter, I’ll be sure to let you know,” I joked, stupidly.
And then they left.
I stood outside for a while, wondering what my next move should be. Eventually, Craigslist Guy showed up, along with my roommate. We loaded the couch onto his truck and sent him on his way. With nothing left tying me to that apartment, I got out of town.
Since then, I’ve written a few articles here and there for whatever publications might have me, but I’ve mostly steered clear of amateur foreign policy journalism. I ultimately decided against graduate school, and the ~$60,ooo debt it would have burdened me with, and fell instead into the absurd tech world of Silicon Valley.
By roughly the same time the following year, I had marooned myself in Iceland, laughing maniacally from my hostel room as Donald J. Trump became president of the United States. I spent some time in Europe, followed by Los Angeles, and then inevitably fell back into Silicon Valley, because cash rules everything around me and I require cash to remain as irresponsible as I am.
I accrued a lot of ridiculous stories throughout that time, and it’s my intention to tell at least some of them here. Or maybe I’ll just write about music and complain about politics. Maybe I’ll write elaborate lies and propagate fake news. Maybe I won’t write anything at all.
So why start a blog? I don’t know, maybe I miss the FBI. Alex and I created this site to spare ourselves the indignity of ranting on social media to no one in particular, and the only thing that’s certain at this point is that no one is paying us to do any of this.
It’s a blog about nothing, named after a cyberpunk movie from the 90’s, and we may yet get sued for it.
Enjoy. You’re not in any trouble, we just want to talk.