In light of the British court decision to permit the extradition of 5 Muslims to the United States, the following article outlines the treatment and justice they are likely to face going forward.
Pale and gaunt, he stood there, having endured three years of pretrial solitary confinement. “Alhamdullilah,” he said.
Yes. He had allowed an acquaintance to stay with him in his student apartment in London—an acquaintance who had raincoats, ponchos, and waterproof socks in his luggage, which the acquaintance later delivered to Al Qaeda.
One day before his case was set to go to trial, nearly four years after he had been arrested, Syed Fahad Hashmi, a U.S. citizen, accepted a government plea bargain on one count of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism.
Eight years earlier, Fahad and I had sat across from each other in my office. A student in my civil-rights seminar, he had come in to discuss his final research paper. Months after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, he wanted to examine the denial of civil rights and constitutional protections that Muslim groups across the political spectrum were facing in the United States.
A devout Muslim and outspoken political activist, Fahad had been a lively and overly talkative participant in class discussion. Relishing debate, he had not shied away from disagreement. I often saw him in the halls before and after class deliberating with other students, discussing the issues of the day or denouncing U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the treatment of Muslims in America. He seemed to prefer to talk to those who did not share his political views, and to possess the overly optimistic belief that with a good argument, he could win others over. He would sometimes tire me out by his indefatigable talking, and on occasion, by leaving materials in my mailbox about converting to Islam. His utopia was a state ruled by religious law, and he held beliefs that I certainly did not share about global politics and the ascendancy of Islam.
Still, Fahad—or Syed, as I called him then—was a thoughtful student, and I admired his spunk and stubborn willingness to question authority. I found out later that because all the men in his family had Syed as a first name, he was known to friends and family as Fahad. But like many other students at Brooklyn College, he was too respectful to correct me.
His final paper contended that in contradiction to the Bill of Rights, the civil liberties of Muslim-American groups were being violated in the aftermath of September 11. It began with the American philosopher Randolph Bourne’s claim that in times of war, dissent becomes seditious: “Minority opinion, which in times of peace, was only irritating and could not be dealt with by law unless it was conjoined with actual crime, becomes, with the outbreak of war, a case for outlawry.”
That summer, Fahad e-mailed me for advice. He wanted to know how to become a professor. The next semester he came to my office. He was applying to master’s-degree programs in England. Would I write him a recommendation? Yes, I said, that makes sense. In 2003, there was a much more developed intellectual conversation among British academics on the role of Islam in global politics than there was in the United States. I’d be happy to write a letter. He got up to leave. Almost at the door, he opened his backpack and nervously turned to face me.
Out he fished a package of chocolates. Old World in his manners, Fahad had very likely decided he could not come empty-handed to make a request. He handed them to me. No, no, that’s not necessary, I said. This is my job. Thank you, he said, and stubbornly insisted on giving me the chocolates.
I wrote the recommendation and sent him on his way. Three years later, a colleague told me she’d just seen a news story—our former student Syed Hashmi had been arrested in Britain on some sort of terrorism charge. We were instructed by the college not to say anything to the news media. In the silence lurked fear of association. Galled by the prohibitions, I nevertheless put the arrest out of my mind.
More than a year later, another colleague e-mailed to ask what I knew of Syed’s case. The question sat in my head. Poking around on the Web, I found sensational stories about the arrest of a homegrown terrorist from Queens—a fearsome picture of military gear in the hands of Al Qaeda, reams of cash headed toward the insurgency in Afghanistan.
After a couple of weeks, the case was still bothering me. Fahad had been a zealous political activist. As a scholar of African-American history, I knew that people with radical politics often became targets of government surveillance, that threats to national security were not always what they were purported to be. I found myself going back to that history as I tried to understand what was happening.
The articles on Fahad’s arrest listed the name of his lawyer. I cold-called him, and he asked to meet. Sean Maher talked to me that afternoon about SAMs, CIPA, and “material support”—a hodgepodge of acronyms and confusing legal terms, even for a professor of political science who imagined herself well informed. Maher, a former public defender, had represented people accused of murder, rape, drug trafficking, and gang conspiracy. Never had he seen anything like the jail conditions and rights violations Fahad was being subjected to.
Worried at how isolated Fahad’s family might feel, and learning that they were still living in Queens, I sent his parents a card. A few days later, Fahad’s father called. Syed Anwar Hashmi was distraught. The family had left Pakistan when Fahad was 3. Mr. Hashmi had worked for the City of New York as an accountant for more than two decades. He did not understand how his son could be treated in this way in a country that he had sacrificed to come to and be part of. He started to cry. He believed in the law. But there were supposed to be fair trials, a set of rights, public evidence, and no torture. Where was the Constitution now?
In the years since September 11, stories announcing the apprehension of new terrorism suspects have filled the national news. They follow the same form: relief mixed with jubilation that law enforcement is keeping our homeland safe. Despite the banner headlines, the actual nature of these cases receives limited public scrutiny. We hear little of the government’s evidence or of the treatment of suspects within the federal system. We have come to accept, almost reflexively, that while there have been abuses in places overseas—Guantánamo, Bagram, secret CIA prisons—the rule of law is intact at home. Captivated by a post-civil-rights frame of the U.S. judicial system as relatively incorruptible, we have missed the broader devolution of rights in the federal system and the ways our terrorism policies follow from a larger history of policing dissent and difference.
This, then, is the story of Guantánamo at home, of the treatment of terrorism suspects in the federal courts, the civil-rights violations happening within the United States, and the legal and political culture that allows them. I have been lecturing and writing about this case for more than three years, and what strikes me, as someone who studies civil rights, is how little we in America seem to learn from our own history.
On June 6, 2006, preparing to board a plane to Pakistan, Syed Fahad Hashmi was arrested at Heathrow Airport on a U.S. warrant. He had been living in London, completing his master’s degree in international relations at London Metropolitan University. The arrest of Fahad, who was charged by the United States with two counts of providing and conspiring to provide material support and two counts of making and conspiring to make a contribution of goods or services to Al Qaeda, commanded the top of the nightly news that June evening. “Terror trail” and “web of terror” flashed as Brian Williams began his nightly broadcast. New York Police Chief Raymond Kelly crowed, “This arrest reinforces the fact that a terrorist may have roots in Queens and still betray us.” As in many terrorism indictments, the news media maintained little distance from the government’s story.
For 11 months, Fahad fought his extradition, fearing the treatment he would face in American courts. In May 2007, he became the first U.S. citizen extradited under laws passed after September 11 that relaxed standards for the process. While the British government did not ask for assurances of fair treatment for Fahad, it did require the United States to give a cursory account of the basis of the case.
The “centerpiece” of that case was the testimony of a cooperating witness, Mohammed Junaid Babar. In the beginning of 2004, Babar, an acquaintance of Hashmi’s from New York, asked to stay with him at his London apartment for two weeks. According to the government, the acquaintance had luggage with him, which he, the acquaintance, later delivered to the third-ranking member of Al Qaeda in South Waziristan, in Pakistan. In addition, Hashmi allegedly allowed Babar to use his cellphone to call conspirators in terrorist plots.
“If we are engaged in a war against terror—and we most certainly are,” FBI Assistant Director Mark J. Mershon publicly claimed, “then Syed Hashmi aided the enemy by supplying military gear to Al Qaeda.” The government had caught a “quartermaster.” Despite the sensationalism, the government had been forced to admit it was not actually accusing Hashmi of supplying military gear himself; “quartermastering” consisted of allowing an acquaintance with luggage to stay in his apartment. “Military gear” in the luggage amounted to raincoats, ponchos, and waterproof socks.
Babar himself had been arrested in 2004 on five charges of material support. He quickly cooperated with government authorities, who interviewed him in a midtown hotel, and he agreed to serve as a government witness in a number of terrorism cases in exchange for a reduced sentence. Out on bail since 2008, Babar would provide his last testimony at Fahad’s trial.
Flown back to New York, Fahad Hashmi was placed in solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan, 13 miles from where he had grown up in Flushing. In front of a courtroom filled with family and friends, Judge Loretta A. Preska denied him bail. Although he was a citizen with no criminal record, she said that he did not respect U.S. laws or have significant ties to family and community to prevent him from fleeing.
In the first months of detention, family members could visit him together and talk about their visits with friends and family. Fahad had a radio and could receive and read newspapers and magazines. He could shower outside of the view of the camera. His lawyer could talk freely with him and with others.
Five months later, that changed. Fahad was put under Special Administrative Measures, or SAMs, which restrict a prisoner’s contact with the outside world.
The federal government established SAMs in 1996 for gang leaders and other crime bosses with demonstrated reach in cases of “substantial risk that an inmate’s communication or contacts with persons could result in death or serious bodily injury to persons.” After September 11, the Justice Department began using SAMs pretrial, with wide latitude to wall off terrorism suspects before they had been convicted of anything.
Fahad was allowed no contact with anyone outside his lawyer and, in very limited fashion, his parents—no calls, letters, or talking through the walls, because his cell was electronically monitored. He had to shower and relieve himself within view of the camera. He was allowed to write only one letter a week to a single member of his family, using no more than three pieces of paper. One parent was allowed to visit every two weeks, but often would be turned away at the door for bureaucratic reasons. Fahad was forbidden any contact—directly or through his lawyers—with the news media. He could read only portions of newspapers approved by his jailers—and not until 30 days after publication. Allowed only one hour out of his cell a day, he had no access to fresh air but was forced to exercise in a solitary cage.
The government cited Hashmi’s “proclivity for violence” as the reason for such harsh measures—even though he had no criminal record and was not charged with committing an actual act of violence or having any demonstrated reach outside of prison. Given the number of people convicted of a violent crime behind bars in the United States, “proclivity for violence” seemed an implausible justification for the harsh measures.
While challenging his extradition, Hashmi had been housed at Britain’s notorious Belmarsh prison, where he talked, prayed, and exercised with other prisoners. No complaint was ever made about his behavior there. (The British never charged him with any support to terrorism.) Similarly, there had been no complaint about his behavior in his first five months at the correctional center.
But he was not cooperating with American authorities. The U.S. attorney had made it clear that this could all go away if he would. As Fahad explained at his sentencing three years later, “And in all reality, I had nothing to cooperate about.” Much like other forms of torture, his treatment was a coercive punishment for not doing what the government wanted.
Special Administrative Measures come directly from the attorney general. Used pretrial, they seem to be reserved for Muslim defendants. On May 31, 2009, as Hashmi sat in isolation, Scott Roeder, a Christian militant, walked into a Wichita church and shot and killed an abortion doctor—an act of premeditated murder. Some anti-abortion activists celebrated and wrote to Roeder in jail. Some even came to visit. Roeder was not put under SAMs. Meanwhile, Fahad received his first punishment, for “unauthorized gestures” and insubordination, after he practiced martial arts in his cell. He lost his limited family visits for three months.
On January 23, 2009, the day after President Obama signed an executive order prohibiting torture and ordering the prison at Guantánamo closed, Fahad’s defense challenged his SAMs for the second time, citing extensive scholarly and medical evidence that long-term solitary confinement and sensory deprivation damage a person’s mental and physical health. Citing the martial-arts incident and continuing threat to national security, the judge rejected the argument, and over the next three years, 30 more appeals. Attorney General Eric Holder renewed Fahad’s SAMs in October 2009.
The use of torture and other human-rights violations in America’s war on terrorism has been framed as a problem occurring largely outside our shores. Our public conversation blames a set of bad guys—the “torture lawyers” John Yoo and Jay Bybee and their patrons, President Bush and Vice President Cheney—who twisted the law to allow “enhanced interrogation” in secret and offshore locations.
But enhanced-interrogation techniques are only one facet of the human-rights devolution in the aftermath of September 11. In a campaign against terrorism that requires evidence of the effectiveness of law enforcement, a record of conviction is paramount. Prosecuting alleged terrorists has significant cachet for politically aspiring U.S. attorneys, not to mention financial imperatives as various government agencies compete for money made available to fight terrorism. Under the cover of law, U.S. attorneys use prolonged solitary confinement and sensory deprivation to help produce convictions. As John McCain, a former POW, wrote, such treatment “crushes the spirit.”
The use of prolonged solitary confinement is increasingly out of step with world opinion and practice, and is deemed torture by international standards. On July 8, 2010, the European Court of Human Rights kept in place an injunction barring the extradition of four terrorism suspects to the United States, based on the inhumane conditions in so-called Supermax prisons, including the use of postconviction SAMs. Evidence of Hashmi’s pretrial treatment formed part of the background for the decision.
Censure is more difficult within the United States. In a particularly troubling twist, detailed criticism of SAMs, in itself, becomes illegal. Everyone in direct contact with a person under SAMs is bound by the SAMs and not allowed to talk about any conversation with the detainee, thus making it illegal to speak out against the precise damage of these measures.
Fahad’s treatment was not a historical aberration. State interests of national security have repeatedly trumped civil liberties. Shadowy “un-American” enemies have long borne the brunt of scrutiny and repression. And periods of public regret have often followed.
In 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, allowing the internment of more than 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans (more than two-thirds of whom were American citizens). Upheld as constitutional in a series of Supreme Court cases on the grounds of national security, internment hardly raised an eyebrow with journalists during World War II. Those who objected were pilloried, with the complicity of many civil libertarians and the silence of many Americans. When a group of 63 Japanese-American men at Heart Mountain Relocation Camp protested internment by refusing to be drafted or swear unconditional loyalty to the United States, they were jailed. The Japanese American Citizens League supported the government, and the American Civil Liberties Union refused to provide legal assistance, claiming the draft resisters had no legal case. They received three years in prison and were ostracized for years.
The United States, however, quickly distanced itself from its history of internment. By the 1950s, a new internal enemy had emerged. In a cold war with the Soviet Union, Americans feared that Communists were infiltrating American institutions. Political activists and Communist sympathizers summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s were often pushed to name names. In many cases, the government knew whom they knew—and, in a number, that those summoned had no crucial information. The point was to quiet dissident voices.
Civil-rights activists—variously including Martin Luther King Jr., the American Indian Movement, and the Black Panther Party—soon became prime targets. That was not simply because of the actions of a renegade FBI director. Attorney General Robert Kennedy himself signed off on the bugging of King in 1963. Of Americans surveyed by Gallup in the days before the 1963 March on Washington, almost half of those who had heard about the protest viewed it unfavorably. When the FBI began handing over salacious information on King to journalists, no reporter blew the whistle.
Beginning in the late 1960s, the United States again disavowed such tactics. In 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that citizens had the right to associate with and be members of dissenting groups like the Communist Party, as long as they engaged in no criminal act.
By the 1990s, with the end of the cold war, and following the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, Islamic fundamentalism became the new lurking enemy. The subversion of liberties in what came to be known as the “war on terror” married old practices to new tactics. Political association could now be criminalized through the fearsome-sounding material-support bans instituted under President Clinton (and later expanded under the Patriot Act). The federal government would sponsor bold public indictments but avoid public show trials—the evidence and proceedings largely kept hidden. There would be no mass-based internment, but a broad swath of interrogations and prosecutions aimed at those deemed disloyal. And the politics of fear and patriotic loyalty would keep journalists and many civil-rights organizations silent.
Fahad’s due-process rights fell victim to the 1980 Classified Information Procedures Act, which allows evidence to be kept classified. Its use has drastically expanded post-9/11. As a citizen in federal court, Fahad faced evidence he was not allowed to review. Fahad’s lawyers went through intensive security clearances to view it—but were not allowed to discuss it with him.
Under material-support bans, all sorts of constitutionally protected activities can be classified as suspect, if not criminal. Material-support charges require no criminal act nor direct contact with terrorists, just the knowing “support” of a foreign terrorist organization. They often focus on small acts and religious and political associations, which take on sinister meaning as ostensible manifestations of forthcoming terrorism.
So-called “jihadist” ideas and membership in radical Islamic political groups thus become indications of “support,” rather than constitutionally protected speech and association. While a student, Fahad had drawn the attention of authorities as a member of the New York political group Al Muhajiroun. (Despite its troubled history in England, the group has not been designated a terrorist organization by the United States, nor has membership in the organization been deemed illegal here.) An activist, Fahad had demonstrated outside various embassies protesting the situation of Muslims in Kashmir, Chechnya, and Palestine, and what he saw as U.S. complicity in Muslim oppression. He drew the attention of Time magazine and CNN for comments he made at a student meeting at Brooklyn College praising John Walker Lindh, and calling America “the biggest terrorist in the world.” In the year before the Second Gulf War, speaking at Muslim student associations across the New York area, he claimed that the United States had greater aspirations in the Middle East and was preparing to go to war against Iraq. Though well outside mainstream political opinion, his activities should have fallen squarely within the protections of the U.S. Constitution.
The theory of preventive prosecution behind many material-support cases rests on identifying dangerous characteristics that portend forthcoming terrorism. In 2007, the New York Police Department published a report on homegrown terrorism, citing Fahad as one of the examples and listing indications of a person’s possible growing radicalization. Those included: giving up cigarettes, drinking, gambling, and urban hip-hop gangster clothes; wearing traditional Islamic clothing; growing a beard; and becoming involved in social activism and community issues.
The government had no evidence it was prepared to introduce in court outside of Babar’s word that Babar had access to or delivered anything to Al Qaeda. Key to its case, then, were Fahad’s controversial political beliefs. The government was prepared to introduce tapes of his political activities at trial, tapes that indicated considerable surveillance of his activism as a college student, years before Babar’s visit to his apartment. Despite objections from the defense citing Fahad’s First Amendment rights, the judge ruled that the tapes were relevant to understanding his state of mind and “background to the conspiracy.”
The seminar paper Fahad had written on civil-liberties violations was no longer academic. Stunned by the rights abuses happening but a few miles away, two colleagues who had also had him as a student and I circulated a Statement of Concern calling attention to “the conditions of his detention, constraints on his right to a fair trial, and the potential threat his case poses to the First Amendment rights of others.” Over the coming months, more than 550 scholars and writers signed the statement, which we sent to Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey and the U.S. attorney for the Southern District—and dozens of journalists and local officials.
With the exception of The Chronicle and The Village Voice’s longtime civil libertarian Nat Hentoff, no journalists widely reported Fahad’s treatment. Despite the determined work of Fahad’s family, friends, and some Muslim student groups, the major civil-liberties organizations also remained silent. Working hard to get terrorism suspects out of Guantánamo into the federal system, they did not feel they could turn around and highlight how unfair the federal system was. The attorney general’s office responded in a letter reminding us that, under SAMs, we could not contact him, but promising that any concerns Mr. Hashmi had would be dealt with in a “timely” fashion.
In the winter of 2009, we sent the statement to President Obama and Attorney General Holder. The only answer we received from a constitutional-scholar-turned-president came addressed to “Ms. Jeanne Theoharis and Friends,” thanking us for “taking the time to share your views.” For the next 15 months, the Obama administration made no changes in Fahad’s conditions, in its commitment to secret evidence, and in its use of political activities as evidence of criminal intent.
The years of pretrial detention took their toll on Fahad’s family, still living in Flushing. Fahad’s father, exhausted by fear, took early retirement. His older brother, Faisal, who had two children during the years of Fahad’s pretrial detention, told me how difficult it was to enjoy them while his brother sat a few miles away in isolation. He brought his son and daughter with him to pretrial hearings, so Fahad could get a glimpse of them.
Faisal had studied business and possessed a voluminous knowledge about movies; he had never understood how Fahad intended to make money with a degree in political science. Now, out of necessity, Faisal grew into an able political speaker and prodigious legal mind. Together with friends and supporters, he helped start a group called the Muslim Justice Initiative, to provide support for Muslim families and communities in the United States facing legal problems in the post-9/11 political climate. The need for such a group was increasingly urgent.
We attended Fahad’s pretrial hearings, watching him grow thinner, less focused, and more jittery. I corresponded with more journalists, but no one seemed to have the right beat to write about the case—a “metro story” to be covered at trial, according to The New York Times.
To begin to break the silence, I wrote an article for The Nation. A movement of New Yorkers began to grow. Outraged that this inhumanity was occurring in lower Manhattan, people sought to bear witness. And so, in October 2009, Theaters Against War, together with Educators for Civil Liberties and the Muslim Justice Initiative, began holding weekly protest vigils outside Fahad’s prison. In the rain and the cold, the Broadway actors Wallace Shawn, Bill Irwin, and Kathleen Chalfant performed. The opera singer Christine Moore and the folk singer Dar Williams sang. Muslim students, playwrights, clergy, professors, law students, antiwar grannies, mothers with children, high-school students, prison-rights activists, and Fahad’s own extended family gathered outside the prison week after week for seven months, in the darkness of winter and the light of spring.
Progressive and international news media began to take an interest. The Center for Constitutional Rights, Amnesty International USA, and the Council on American Islamic Relations-NY put out an open statement raising concerns about Fahad’s conditions.
If this were a movie, the story might end with a triumphal courtroom scene, or an intrepidWashington Post reporter breaking the story. It might have a sentimental ending, with a conservative Muslim family and community locking arms with Christians and Jews and atheists and turning the country back to its commitment to civil rights. The government, shamed, would reform its practices.
But this is not a movie, and inhumane treatment is well protected in post-9/11 America.
The organizing campaign 500@500 called on people to attend Fahad’s trial at the federal district courthouse. That alarmed the government, which filed a motion citing public interest in the case as questionable and dangerous. A 500@500 poster became the government’s Exhibit A. The U.S. attorney explained that “jurors will see in the gallery of the courtroom a significant number of the defendant’s supporters, naturally leading to juror speculation that at least some of these spectators might share the defendant’s violent radical Islamic leanings.” Prosecutors asked for jurors to be granted anonymity and requested extra security for them. Promoting guilt by implication, such measures would have signaled to the jury that Fahad was dangerous before he stepped into the courtroom. Demonizing observers, the government legitimized the idea that jurors should view them with suspicion. Once again, the judge granted the government’s motion.
One day later, on April 27, Fahad agreed to a plea bargain of one count of conspiring to provide material support. He made the decision after not seeing anyone but his lawyers in more than five months, not having access to the religious support of an imam, and after nearly three years of solitary confinement.
A day before trial, the government dropped the other three charges. That it did so suggests that it had applied draconian pretrial measures, not because it considered Fahad a high-level terrorist, but to induce his cooperation or conviction.
Six weeks later, Judge Preska sentenced him to 15 years in prison. At the sentencing, it became clear that Fahad posed a threat not only because of luggage brought to his apartment, but because of his ideology. Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan McGuire called it “an ideology of violence and intolerance,” noting that “not every person who supports Al Qaeda is going to pull a trigger or throw a bomb or launch an attack.” Citing Fahad’s “anti-American jihadist ideology,” the judge echoed that McCarthyesque logic of deterrence.
At the hearing, Fahad made his first public statement in four years. With numerous references to the Qur’an, he spoke extremely hurriedly. When the judge asked him to slow down, he apologized, saying he had not spoken much in the past years. And then he started to cry.
Fahad thanked the people, both Muslims and non-Muslims, who had opposed the injustices in his case. “To the non-Muslims, above all, some of my former professors,” he said: “I hope,Insha’Allah, that Allah gives me the opportunity to me to repay you your kindness.” He expressed hope “that the bridges of dialogue and debate that were built around this case remain so.” He apologized to his family for the pain he had caused them and took responsibility for his associations with Babar. He spoke of the “noble mujahedin” and, with allusions to Moses and the Pharaoh, criticized the government’s inhumane treatment of Muslim prisoners, including his “brothers” at Guantánamo.
In August, Fahad was transferred to the federal high-security prison in Florence, Colo., and in March moved into its Supermax ADX facility, the most draconian prison in the federal system, criticized by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for its inhumane conditions. He remains in solitary confinement, still under SAMs, which was renewed again by Attorney General Holder in October.
Meanwhile, in December, Babar was sentenced to “time served” (four and a half years out of a possible 70). The judge cited his “exceptional” service and noted that he “began co-operating even before his arrest”—raising questions internationally as to whether he had worked for the American government before his apprehension.
Anyone who sits on the subway in New York knows the poster. “If you see something, say something.” Our duty is laid out: to look out constantly for suspicious activity and individuals. Implicitly we are told to see danger in the eyes and backpacks of people with beards and head scarves, to identify threat in those who give up drinking or observe terrorism trials. There is a lovely complexity to the young man who e-mails his female professor about what her job is like and calls the United States “the biggest terrorist in the world,” who brings chocolates to say thank you and decries secularism. But seeing that humanity is at odds with the political zeitgeist, where endless searches and small bottles of shampoo and fear-mongering subway posters have become the currency of national security. Where a growing obsession with homegrown terrorism means that we are again willing to chisel away the Bill of Rights in the name of protecting America.
Over the past three years, I have done many interviews about Fahad’s case. Journalists ask, How do you know he is innocent? Rights do not require known innocence, I point out. What do you say after the plea? To one who teaches about civil rights, I explain, it is humbling to see those rights shredded a few miles from my classroom. Among the hardest things to teach as a historian are the outsized fears, political motivations, and economic interests that rendered good people silent in the face of government repression, civil-rights violations, internment, and redbaiting.
We have freedom of speech and build bridges of dialogue and debate, I teach my students, and what makes that hard is that we have to hear things we do not like and be confronted with truths and opinions far removed from our own.
But those lessons are not upheld in our public culture, which has drawn arbitrary, silencing constrictions around the speech and association of Muslim-Americans. While Christian and Jewish political dissents regularly enter American public debate (militant Christian anti-abortion rhetoric, for instance, may be censured but is not criminalized), Islamic political dissent condemning U.S. practices becomes “subject to ferocious penalties,” as Randolph Bourne decried long ago, and Fahad had quoted in his paper.
“If you see something, say something.” Our duty, I believe, is different—to see in a terrorism suspect a person deserving of rights and humane treatment; to speak out against torture when it happens in a New York jail, not just when it occurs overseas; to insist that the Bill of Rights applies to all defendants all of the time. To take responsibility for the ways each of us has become complicit in the civil-rights violations of our era.
Jeanne Theoharis is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and co-founder of the group Educators for Civil Liberties.
(The article was originally published here on April 3 2011)