Tuesday, May 04, 2010

How could this happen in Lackawanna?

When John Ashcroft's Justice Department announced in September 2002 that authorities had broken up a terrorist "sleeper cell" in Lackawanna, New York, the Attorney General didn't entirely get the benefit of the doubt from me. Lackawanna? That sad, dingy former steel mill suburb of Buffalo? A place I'd watched drained of hope and life through the 70s and 80s? A place where acquaintances tried to create an attractive pub in the 90s but couldn't shake the depressed surroundings? The arrests just seemed presumptively false and political, part of the Bush regime's ongoing effort to keep the people of the U.S. scared silly and compliant.

The accused were six Yemeni-American men, U.S. citizens, Muslims, charged with traveling to Pakistan and Afghanistan for military training in early 2001. I found it hard to believe that guys coming out of that claustrophobic milieu had ever thought about traveling to Central Asia. But evidently they did. Eventually they all pled to "materially supporting terrorism" and were sent to prison. The Justice Department got its scalps.

In The Jihad Next Door: The Lackawanna Six and Rough Justice in an Age of Terror, veteran NPR journalist Dina Temple-Ralston has sorted through the facts and circumstances of the case. She doesn't conclude or judge; she collects and presents the data, leaving any conclusions up to the reader.

The men were like a lot of young people in depressed towns -- bored, at loose ends, marginally employed at best. There were uniquely Yemeni immigrant aspects of their lives: their families to some extent preserved the culture of the country from which they'd come; they didn't really know much about their own Muslim religion and felt bad about that; four of the men were married, despite their youth and marginal employment. But mostly this book presents them as being an all-too-common mix of poorly educated, gullible, and unlucky enough to meet trouble. That last had a name: Kamel Derwish, apparently a charismatic al-Qaeda recruiter, who drifted into town and promised them that if they'd go with him to Pakistan, they'd learn true Islam and also get to fulfill their aspirations to heroism, perhaps by fighting for Muslims in Bosnia or Chechnya.

So off they went, as aimlessly as they were already living. In Afghanistan, they discovered that boot camp was hard work; heard Osama bin Laden speak (and claim to have felt more chills than thrills); and beat it home as soon as they were able. They were a bust as terrorists, never apparently even planning any actions in the aftermath of their trip. Then 9/11 happened and they drifted into the cross hairs of the FBI, ending up as Exhibit A for domestic terrorism.

Oh yes, Derwish didn't come home with them; he died in a missile attack on a car in Yemen that U.S. authorities say carried six al-Qaeda fighters. Derwish was the first U.S citizen (and so far the only one we know of) to have been killed without warrant or trial in the CIA's drone war.

Temple-Ralston's account of all this is thorough and seems to me fair. She highlights that the legal standard that rendered these guys convictable was a consequence of the panicked post-9/11 atmosphere. The men's actual acts -- traveling overseas, exploring exotic ideas -- were not, of themselves, illegal acts when they did them. But after 9/11 it wasn't hard for the government to make foolish young men look dangerous. Ashcroft and Co. needed a win, so they made it clear they could press for even heavier charges if the fellows would not cop a guilty plea. They decided to go along, against the advice of their lawyers.

People close to the case gave the reporter candid summations of what happened:

The defense never knew how far Washington was willing to go: "they were bandying about the death penalty for these guys," one of the defense attorneys said later. "It was ridiculous. These kids were clearly idiots. They weren't traitors."

... "The administration did a magnificent job of politicizing this case from the get-go,"[defense lawyer Rod] Petronius asserted. "In subtle ways, they were able to take advantage of the climate in the country to influence the thinking of our clients. Bush still calls them a sleeper cell and for the life of me I don't understand why. Don't cells plan things? Case targets?"

These guys were just among the losers of 9/11 -- as we all were from the vengeful politicizing of the Justice Department.

For many of us progressives, this was one of the main aspects of the Bush administration we wanted the Obama people to turn around. We hoped to go back to a time when people were convicted for their acts, not for being Muslims and out of touch. The record so far in the new regime is terrible in some respects. They haven't and won't be ending detention without judicial procedure of persons they label "terrorists." They admit to putting yet another U.S. citizen thought to be in Yemen on the CIA kill list.

On the other hand, the current Justice Department seems to be trying to tamp down the potential hysteria that could easily follow the inept Times Square car bombing attempt. For this we should be grateful, and should resist the calls we're sure to hear from Right for a legal lynching. Ordinary criminal procedure ought to do just fine.

1 comment:

Nance said...

I'm with you. Our global cred is lousy and we don't improve it when we act unreasonably, no matter how justified we feel. And we need relatively good global cred if we're to cooperate in saving a planet (sooner rather than later). On the other hand, there's the continued threat. And more opportunities for racial profiling. Civil court or military court? Solomonic decisions falling from the sky like a plague on the head of Mr. Obama. Who do we know among the living who might be up to the job as it has recently taken shape?

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