Tarek Mehanna stood by his beliefs, and refused to show "remorse" for expressing them. To the prosecutor and judge, that made him a threat, deserving of 17.5 years in a tiny cell.
Tarek Mehanna’s road to notoriety started with Batman and his high school history teacher.
From Batman, Mehanna told a federal court Thursday, he learned that some people are oppressed and some are oppressors. He sided with the oppressed.
At Lincoln-Sudbury High School, he learned of oppression in his own country, that America had enslaved African-Americans and locked up Japanese-Americans, that the government had imprisoned people like Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman, not for their actions but because it was threatened by their ideas.
Speaking without notes in a clear, calm, passionate voice, Mehanna, now 29, spoke of inspiration gained through the typical American high school curriculum: Harriett Tubman, Anne Frank, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Catcher in the Rye. He studied the life of Malcolm X, drawn to his battles against injustice, his devotion to Islam, his personal transition from street criminal to family man and respected leader.
Mehanna grew up not far from the spot where Americans fought the British in Lexington and Concord. He went on field trips to historic sites, some within blocks of this courthouse, he said, where Americans launched an insurgency against an occupying army.
They were defending their homes and their families, he said, and in Arabic there’s a word for that: jihad.
But Mehanna didn’t turn out to be much of a fighter. Encouraged by his friends, one of whom paid for his ticket, Mehanna flew to Yemen when he was 21. He looked around for a week or so and didn’t like what he saw, so he came home. There, he studied religion, taught history and became a pharmacist. He translated documents from Arabic to English, and he posted them and his own ideas on the Internet.
For this, the federal government has held him in solitary confinement for more than two years.
Mehanna’s heart bled for Muslims killed by Russians in Chechnya, by Serbs in Bosnia and by American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. American Jews who grieve for Israelis killed by terrorists should understand the feeling. So should American Christians who protest the treatment of Christians in China or Egypt.
The prosecution did everything it could to tie Mehanna to the attacks of 9/11, when he was still a teenager, even allowing a highly prejudicial World Trade Center video to be shown to the jury. But “this trial was not about my position on Muslims killing American civilians,” Mehanna said. “It was about my position on Americans killing Muslim civilians.”
Even as he faced sentencing in federal court, Mehanna grieved for a 14-year-old girl raped and killed by American soldiers in Iraq, and asked why Americans seemed to have more sympathy for the soldier who killed 17 Afghan civilians last month than for his victims.
For this, he was sentenced to another 15 years in prison. Judge George O’Toole Jr. said Mehanna’s courtroom speech expressed insufficient “remorse” for his actions.
Let me be clear: Even if Mehanna did everything he is accused of, they are crimes only in the fuzziest reading of a vaguely-written law.
Mehanna was never accused of actually participating in a terrorist operation, nor of planning one. He never picked up a gun. He was charged with providing “material aid to a terrorist organization,” but unlike others charged under that law, he was not accused of sending weapons or money to terrorists, nor did he ever have contact with terrorists. He never came close to hurting anyone. He expressed his opinions, and disseminated the ideas of others, over the Internet.
That, and he refused to be an informant for the FBI. The feds got Mehanna’s friends, some of whom got far closer to actually fighting than Mehanna, to roll over on him. But Mehanna refused to roll over on anyone else, so now he’ll pay.
Prosecutor Aloke S. Chakravarty as much as admitted Thursday that Mehanna should be imprisoned not for his actions, but for his ideas and because others might listen to him. He called for a long sentence because Mehanna must be “incapacitated,” lest his ideas “radicalize” others.
Mehanna is dangerous and must be silenced, Chakravarty said, because “he told his wife he is willing to go to jail for his beliefs or even die for his beliefs.”
Many Americans might find that admirable. To prosecutor Chakravarty, Judge O’Toole and the Obama Justice Department, standing by your beliefs makes you a threat, deserving of 17.5 years in a tiny cell.
Injustice doesn’t just live in history books. The people who imprisoned Tarek Mehanna are the 21st century version of the judges and prosecutors who locked up Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman and Abbie Hoffman for expressing their ideas, who in their zeal to protect America, stained its Constitution by locking up thousands of loyal Japanese-Americans.
There is reason to hope this travesty will be reversed on appeal. The Supreme Court has expressed skepticism of applying the law prohibiting “material support” for terrorist organizations to free speech protected by the First Amendment. But I never thought a jury would convict, and I didn’t think a federal judge would hand down a sentence this heavy.
Where’s the outrage? Mehanna’s case has received little notice outside of Massachusetts. Does there have to be a blond involved to get the attention of the national news networks?
Instead, our free speech debates focus on Ozzie Guillen, the baseball manager punished for saying nice things about Fidel Castro, and about a suggestion to change the words of a patriotic tune in a Bellingham school assembly. Millions are rightly up in arms over the killing of an unarmed young man in Florida.
But Guillen was suspended by his image-conscious employer. Trayvon Martin was shot by a self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer.
Tarek Mehanna’s freedom was taken away by our government, acting in our name.
“I wish I could tell you that we learn from history,” Bill Schechter, one of the teachers who inspired Mehanna in high school, told me this week. “but I don’t think it’s true.”
Mehanna is a bit more optimistic. He learned in history class that Americans looked back at slavery, at the treatment of American Indians and Japanese-Americans and said “what were we thinking?” He reminded the court that Nelson Mandela was once branded a terrorist, but his years in prison didn’t keep him from being elected president of South Africa.
“One day America will change,” Mehanna predicted, “and recognize this trial for what it is.”
That day can’t come soon enough.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. Follow him @HolmesAndCo. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.