Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Tuesday, February 10, 2004  

A last word on the last man to be sentenced in the "Portland Seven" case. Yesterday Maher "Mike" Hawash was given seven years for "aiding the Taliban" (actually, it was a bizarre attempt to aid the Taliban--he never got closer to Afghanistan than Western China). It was an emotional case in Portland--a stage play of the larger drama we see nationally regarding terrorism, Islam, race, and the legal system.

Hawash, who was a legal citizen, married to a blond-haired, blue eyed Portlander, and was an engineer at Intel, became the symbol for every side in the argument. As Hawash was jailed in solitary confinement for weeks without charge, friends and co-workers staged a robust protest, seeing him as an example of lost civil liberties. He became a test case for the power of the government to prosecute legal US citizens. And then on the other side of things, a local editorialist named David Reinhard played the worst kind of race/creed politics, arguing that Hawash, by virtue of his beard and skin color, "offered just a small clue about why the Joint Terrorism Task Force was interested in 'Mike' in the first place."

Then there were the legal and political issues. John Ashcroft promoted the Portland Seven as examples that the Patriot Act was necessary and working.

The United States does not casually or capriciously charge its own citizens with providing support to terrorists. But the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, serve as a constant, stark reminder that America has enemies in the world . . . and sometimes the enemies are here at home. The plea agreements in the Portland case would have been more difficult to achieve, were it not for the legal tools provided by the USA Patriot Act.

Yesterday, Ashcroft called it a "defining day in America's war on terrorism." But he didn't mention that none of the defendants were being tried as terrorists, nor that laws pre-dating the Patriot Act would be used to prosecute them. In fact, one could argue that the Portland Seven were the perfect example of why the Patriot Act isn't necessary.

Now that we've reached the end of the road, the lessons aren't clear. Hawash yesterday took full responsibility for his actions, saying he was "Proud to be a US citizen." For those who wanted this to be a test case for the Patriot Act, Hawash was something less than perfectly innocent, but also something far more less than traitorous. Neither civil liberties proponents nor racists like Reinhard are going to feel comfortable identifying this case as the symbol of their cause (and although Ashcroft must ride this horse politically, it's unclear whether legislators will see it as a triumph of the Patriot Act).

Like the larger drama playing out nationwide, the prosecution of Maher Hawash was confusing and painful. It didn't lead back to the clean concept of "evil" that began with Bush's rhetoric, but neither did it sever Islam's role. Everyone wanted more clarity after 9/11, but this case, if it's symbolic of anything, shows that the road is going to be a lot muddier than we'd hoped.

[Clarification: Al-Muhajabah pointed out that my use of the phrase "neither did it sever Islam's role" was a little sloppy. My intent there wasn't implicate Islam as a contributor to terror.]

posted by Jeff | 8:37 AM |
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