The right to say vile things

Since Taner Edis asked, I want to say that yes, I’m appalled by the Tarek Mehanna case, where a man is facing 17 years in prison for expressing sympathy with Al Qaeda and translating some Al Qaeda documents into English. Andrew Sullivan has linked to the following defense of the prosecution, which relies on citing the following facts:

  • In the second half of 2003, Mehanna and an accomplice discussed a plan to obtain automatic weapons, go to a shopping mall, and randomly shoot people, but abandoned the plans when learning that their weapon’s supplier could only provide handguns.
  • Mehanna translated into English the publication “39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad,” made efforts to have the translation published on the Internet, and requested publication occur without using his own name (all on behalf of al-Qaeda of Iraq).
  • Mehanna expressed a hatred of living in the United States (“I really hate to live in the country longer … I wish to go back to arabia … or some other place where I don’t see these filthy kuffar [non-believer]”).
  • Regarding moderate Muslims leaders, of one he said “[s]he needs to be raped” and of another he said “I wish I could meet [the person] … and cut off his testicles.”
  • In a communication recorded on Mehanna’s computer, he suggested asking for “Allah’s [ ] mercy on just the buildings[,] [destroyed on 9/11] not the sinners that were in it[,] as at least the buildings weren’t sinners[.]”
  • In May 2006, Mehanna and his accomplice planned a movie night to watch video of Zarqawi beheading the 26-year-old American businessman Nicholas Berg.

IANAL, but it’s possible that the first and fourth points could have formed a legitimate basis for a prosecution for conspiracy and for making a death thread. The problem is that, at least judging by the Boston Globe article, that’s not why he was prosecuted. He was prosecuted for the views he expressed, and the documents he translated.

The danger here is that if Mehanna can be prosecuted for making translations, think who else can be prosecuted. If he can be prosecuted for that, what’s to stop the government from prosecuting someone who translated Al Qaeda documents not because they support Al Qaeda, but because they think Americans need a more accurate understanding of what motivates terrorists? Or what’s to stop the government from prosecuting lawyers who provide legal aid to groups the government has designated as terrorist groups? (And if you don’t see the problem with that, I suggest you go back and read the sixth amendment.)

Then there’s the white privilege. Iraq war veteran Ross Caputi writes:

If Tarek Mehanna is guilty, so am I. I, too, support the right of Muslims to defend themselves against US troops, even if that means they have to kill them, and I try to give the Iraqi resistance a voice through my website. I have done everything that Tarek Mehanna has done, and there are only two possibilities as to why I am not sitting in a cell with him: first, the FBI is incompetent and hasn’t been able to smoke me out; second, the US judicial system would never dream of violating my freedom of speech because I am white and I am a veteran of the occupation of Iraq.


I’m not afraid to profess my support for Tarek Mehanna, or to advocate for his ideas, because I know the law does not apply equally to all in America. My whiteness and my status as a veteran will protect me. But Tarek was brown and he never made the mistake of enlisting in the Marine Corps, as I did. So he will spend the next 17 years in a prison cell.

Some of Sullivan’s readers have also produced additional pushback on the issue.

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