On Thursday, April 12, 2012, in a federal court in Boston, an American man by the name of Tarek Mehanna was sentenced to 17 years in prison after being convicted on charges of conspiracy and terrorism (e.g. conspiracy to wage war against the United States, 2 counts of lying to law enforcement, translating and disseminating ‘extremist’ documents and videos on the internet). Many have made an uproar and an outcry, but a reasonable suspicion looms that many more will remain silent.
Even amongst the journalists, activists, and courtroom-characters (a juror), Tarek himself in his statement to the court before his sentencing called on politicians to comment. Those voices amongst the conversation are not presenting a reasoned, rational, and balanced argument – everyone is railing, in one direction or another.
I want to throw my self-ordained reasonable voice into the discussion. Some journalists/activists believe that what Tarek Mehanna did was not problematic at all, that America is wrong, and side with his point of view on America in the War on Terror and sympathize with strong feelings of hate towards America as an alleged empire.
Others think that Mahenna’s political position was absolutely intolerable and that he is getting what he deserved. These voices feel that his trip to Yemen, his attempt to enlist himself in an Al Qaeda training camp, his return to the United States to translate pro-Al Qaeda or pro-Mujahideen documents and/or videos to disseminate on the web, and his defiance in court demonstrate his culpability in helping to wage war on the United States. Some might even think 17 years is too lenient.
But this dichotomous discourse between supposed far-leftists and ‘American imperialists’ are missing a fundamental issue. Enter the reasonable view of an American constitutionalist (not a ridiculous theocratic conservative, e.g. Constitutionalist Party of America, but a person who respects the Constitution). It seems perfectly reasonable, in matters of law in this land, to consult the Law of this Land to understand what is right and/or wrong about this case and to help us sort our thoughts.
We need to draw guidance from this country’s most fundamental tenets to bring in reasonability when opinion and emotionalism cannot. It does not matter what we think of Mahenna. I, personally, think many of his indictments of American brutality around the world, disregard for non-American lives, and ignorance of the suffering that this nation causes is spot on. We should pay attention to, list, and learn the names of the innocent men, women, and children killed in the midst of our conquests around the world.
However, at the same time I find his views about the duty of Muslims to Muslims everywhere as frightening and irrational as the ideology behind the Crusades. I think of his support for organizations like Al Qaeda and the Taliban who kill and terrorize Muslims more than any other victims as counterintuitive, especially if protecting Muslims is his aim. I think his will to enjoy this country’s structure and resources without improving those resources, but simply fantasizing about destroying this country, is disingenuous.
Still, none of this matters. In fact, the only reason I take time in this article to lay out my opinions is because I’m hopelessly opinionated. What matters is that the Constitution of the United States of America finds Tarek Mahenna’s right to free speech, right to freedom of religion, right to freedom of belief, to be inalienable. It is unconscionable for a court in the United States of America to convict someone for translating documents, for disseminating and watching violent videos, it is unconscionable for a court in the United States to send someone to prison for expressing their beliefs and rooting against America in a war. Yes, it is ironic. It wouldn’t be the only irony surrounding our Constitution (half of its ratifying signatures were from slave owners). Our Constitutional and foundational tenets as a nation are so noble, so transcendental, so unconditional that if they are not applicable always and everywhere then they are really not worth anything at all.
I have, for a long time, supported George W. Bush as president, his policies regarding the two wars in the Middle East, his response to 9/11, and his character. Many people find this unbelievable and disgusting. I have my reasons. But if the Patriot Act violates the Constitution, it must go. We can survey people in public, keep track of citizenship, monitor activity in public online spaces, but when privacy is invaded and Constitutional rights are equivocal, we need to take to the streets and remind the Government who owns it. The power is on lease.
If the Constitution is conditional and only applicable in times of peace then it means nothing. Ben Franklin wrote “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” We cannot let go of our civil and, in the American context, natural/human rights under any condition because at some point the two options will converge into one option, ready to be dismantled and unilaterally attacked. If we let our government grow exponentially, we will allow the government to annihilate our spirit and our life as a nation.
For too long we’ve allow an ‘Us v. Them’ psychology to rule our external relations with peoples and nations around the world and we’ve allowed that dichotomy to persist in our political relationships. We need to revive Rousseau. The people are the government and we reserve the right to be crazy, have wild opinions, be edgy, be anti-government, be anti-American. We reserve the right to be whatever we want to be and to let others be the same thing. Tarek Mahenna is not as much a threat to America as the KKK, the Aryan Brotherhood, or various Police Departments. He fired no gun and he made no plans; let this man go.
When Julian Assange made Wikileaks, political leaders made it clear that what he was doing was wrong and that he should be harshly punished. However, no matter what one says or thinks about this man, he’s doing something that the founding fathers had in mind – keeping power in check. One of the main tools of untouchable power is secrecy and that’s why freedom of the press has long been celebrated in the polity, but what our Government is saying when it wages war on the most radical among us it that it does not feel accountable to popular sovereignty and that it scoffs at our right as a people to enforce Rule of Law with finality. Quite frankly, if the members of the government are willing to make that threat as a challenge, then We the People have no choice but to accept that challenge; we would truly owe it to those many who throughout history have bled and died for the perfection of our polity and for the empowerment of the People.