I haven’t sat through every day of a trial since my cub reporter days, and since then, I’ve tried not to second-guess a jury based on my own limited exposure to the evidence. My resolve is sorely tested by a verdict on Dec. 20 finding Tarek Mehanna guilty on all counts.
I haven’t sat through every day of a trial since my cub reporter days, and since then, I’ve tried not to second-guess a jury based on my own limited exposure to the evidence.
My resolve is sorely tested by a verdict on Dec. 20 finding Tarek Mehanna guilty on all counts.
As I’ve argued before, Mehanna was never accused of committing violence or anything close to an actual act of terrorism. He was charged with providing “material support to a terrorist organization,” –– which, in this case, amounted to saying and writing things terrorists might agree with ––and conspiracy –– that weasely class of “inchoate” crimes that don’t actually require the defendant to do anything.
The prosecutors never provided evidence that he had any contact with any members of al-Qaida or any other terrorist organization. That should have been enough to win an acquittal on the conspiracy counts, since the judge instructed the jury that in order to find Mehanna guilty of conspiracy to provide material support to al-Qaida, they must find that he worked “in coordination with or at the direction of” the terrorist organization.
I had assumed the jury, which heard six weeks of testimony, would have a clearer picture of Mehanna as a person than your average Fox News viewer. He was born in Pittsburgh and raised in Sudbury, Mass., as an ordinary American kid. He sat on Santa’s lap at Christmas time, his family apparently not having gotten the memo that only Christians can celebrate the holidays.
He was a huge Nirvana fan, his brother told NPR, bringing an obsession to his study of grunge that he later turned to his study of Islamic philosophy. He got interested in politics after his high school history teacher turned him on to Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”
Young Tarek — he’s 29 now — started connecting with his Muslim heritage in his senior year in high school at a difficult time: 2001. He dallied with extreme Islamist theory and talked with his buddies about his admiration for Osama bin Laden, though he later expressed disapproval for suicide bombers and attacks on civilians. He was outraged by the invasion of Iraq.
All the time, the FBI was listening, having used the “sneak and peek” provisions of the Patriot Act to break into his home and plant bugs while the family was away. Several people, including his students at a Worcester Islamic center, said Tarek had mellowed and matured, as most people do between their early and their late 20s, and was seen in his circles as a voice of Muslim moderation.
Doesn’t matter. The feds rounded up Tarek’s friends and got them to start rolling over on each other. As one friend, who had pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and gone to prison in return for his testimony, told the jury, “the government decides if I can hug my children.”
Tarek Mehanna will be sentenced in the spring to as much as life in prison for the crimes of translating religious documents from Arabic to English, for thinking politically incorrect thoughts, for traveling to Yemen and back (not that he did anything there except discover what a pit Yemen is) and for having conversations with his friends that led to nothing.
You can argue, as did the defense, that the First Amendment is supposed to protect people from prosecution for saying things the government doesn’t like. You can argue that, at the very least, there is reasonable doubt as to whether Mehanna is a conspirator or an abettor of terrorism.
You could also argue that Mehanna is a political prisoner, targeted by a homeland security apparatus that intends to prevent “home-grown” terrorism by locking up people with the wrong ideas and the wrong religion.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the Daily News in Massachusetts, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.wickedlocal.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.