In a disturbing New York Times op-ed yesterday on the government's practice of pursuing the speech of U.S. citizens as a terror crime, Yale professor Andrew March yesterday relays this example:
[I]n his opening statement to the jury one prosecutor suggested that "it's not illegal to watch something on the television. It is illegal, however, to watch something in order to cultivate your desire, your ideology." In other words, viewing perfectly legal material can become a crime with nothing other than a change of heart. When it comes to prosecuting speech as support for terrorism, it's the thought that counts.
That argument won a conviction of Tarek Mehanna, an American pharmacist, and a Muslim, on charges of material support for terrorism and conspiring to kill in a foreign country. March, who testified for the defense, explains that the government's successful case was pinned on two broad sets of facts: that Mehanna had once visited Yemen on a failed expedition to find a jihadist training camp, and that Mehanna had sought out and participated in jihadi conversations online. March explains:
Mr. Mehanna's crimes were speech crimes, even thought crimes. The kinds of speech that the government successfully criminalized were not about coordinating acts of terror or giving directions on how to carry out violent acts. The speech for which Mr. Mehanna was convicted involved the religious and political advocacy of certain causes beyond American shores.
The government's indictment of Mr. Mehanna lists the following acts, among others, as furthering a criminal conspiracy: "watched jihadi videos," "discussed efforts to create like-minded youth," "discussed" the "religious justification" for certain violent acts like suicide bombings, "created and/or translated, accepted credit for authoring and distributed text, videos and other media to inspire others to engage in violent jihad," "sought out online Internet links to tribute videos," and spoke of "admiration and love for Usama bin Laden." It is important to appreciate that those acts were not used by the government to demonstrate the intent or mental state behind some other crime in the way racist speech is used to prove that a violent act was a hate crime. They were the crime, because the conspiracy was to support Al Qaeda by advocating for it through speech.
It would seem by the government's own murky definitions, Mehanna would qualify as a combatant in the indefinite, universal war on terror, as covered by the NDAA. Shocking as Mehanna's prosecution foressentially speech may be, the idea that, but for a promise by the President, he could be eliminated from a death machine in the sky is downright chilling. The government insists, too, that the NYPD's operation as a domestic surveillance agency, spying in Muslim neighborhoods across the region, is perfectly legal and not at all an infringement of any rights. President Obama's top counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, came to New York Police headquarters and said:
It's not a trade-off between our security and our freedoms and our rights as citizens… I believe that that balance that we strike has been an appropriate one. We want to make sure that we're able to optimize our security at the same time we optimize those freedoms that we hold and cherish so deeply."
Liberals may congratulate themselves on President Obama's refusal to use the vernacular of a war on terror directed at Islamic extremism, which so often helped to stoke anti-American anger in just the regions where the United States was embarking on its post-9/11 war on terror, but such congratulations are entirely undeserved. Though the Administration may hang its entire counter-terrorism propaganda on the idea that they are targeting Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda-linked extremists specifically, the prosecution of Tarek Mehanna, despite even any alleged link to any specific Al-Qaeda network, shows a wide chasm between the rhetoric the President deploys to mute liberal outrage over his counter-terrorism practices and the reality of a very real war that targets Muslim populations at home and abroad.
Reason.tv in 2009 on the similarities between George Bush and Barack Obama's terror policies: