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04.22.2012 _____________________

In Michigan, a federal judge recently acquitted David Stone and six members of his Hutaree Christian militia of conspiracy charges. The Hutaree had allegedly plotted to kill a police officer and bomb mourners at a funeral, and had amassed a weapons arsenal, including bomb-making ingredients. The Michigan judge said they were just “venting” and exercising their First Amendment rights.

Venting. I get that.

The Hutarees have a right to free speech. I get that. The bombs and weapons, though? I’ll never get that.

According to a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “The American radical right grew explosively in 2011, a third consecutive year of extraordinary growth that has swelled the ranks of extremist groups to record levels” … “The dramatic expansion of the radical right is the result of our country’s changing racial demographics, the increased pace of globalization, and our economic woes … ”

I get that, too.

In Massachusetts, Tarek Mehanna, a 29-year-old American pharmacist from Sudbury, a Muslim of Egyptian origin, was recently sentenced to 17½ years in super-max prison.

He never owned a weapon. He never plotted to blow anyone up. He was never directly linked to any terrorist group.

He was found guilty of lying to the FBI, for e-mailing friends and downloading and translating materials, including videos from Al Qaeda, that are easily available on the Internet.

Repugnant stuff. Hateful stuff. I don’t get why he did it.

Oh, he also travelled to Yemen for one week in 2004. He said he went to study Arabic and Islam. The prosecution maintained, but had no proof, that he went to join a terrorist training camp. In either case, he wasn’t there long enough, especially given jet-lag response times, to get anything done — no Arabic, no Islam, no training, no foul.

He was also found guilty because of his, as the prosecutor said, “reticence to assist the government.” Translation: He was found guilty of not wanting to become a government informant. Mehanna spoke before sentencing of the moment two federal agents approached him and said he could do things the easy way or the hard way.

The easy way: Become an informant. No jail time.

The hard way: Refuse to become an informant. He got 17½ years.

Mehanna, who had refused to go to Iraq with a friend whom the government later enlisted as an informer, who was under FBI scrutiny for years, was found guilty for activity protected by the First Amendment.

He would have been better off if he had joined the Hutarees.

Were the materials he viewed, translated and e-mailed incendiary? Yes. Were they offensive? Yes. Were they freely available on the internet in other languages? Yes.

Do I like it? No.

Did he have a right to think it, say it? Yes, I think so.

Read his closing statement: www.freetarek.com/tareks-sentencing-statement/.

You won’t like it, but read it.

Mehanna was angry, unrepentant and disenfranchised. In his world view he was horrified at what was happening to Muslims around the world. To Tarek Mehanna, what the United States had really put him on trial for was his belief that Muslims in other countries had the right to defend their own land from foreign invaders, including Americans.

As repugnant as that speech may be to many of us, under the First Amendment it is free speech. Tarek Mehanna “venting.”

The real tragedy here is that our country has clearly traveled a long way — backwards — since 2004, when an Idaho jury found that a Saudi graduate student, Sami Omar Al Hussayyen, was protected by the First Amendment for setting up Web sites for Islamic organizations and posting inflammatory messages on the Internet.

The judge did not even permit Mehanna a First Amendment defense.

Unable to make a case against Mehanna on facts, the prosecution relied on supposition, speculation and fear. It showed videos of 9/11 and the Twin Towers and made frequent references to Al-Qaeda. What jury could resist such a summation?

In 2007, the New York Police Department released a report, “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat.” Muslim communities throughout America are routinely mapped and monitored. Congressional hearings and extreme political rhetoric directed toward Muslims creates a climate in which prosecutions of citizens like Tarek Mehanna can take place. A climate, which, in my mind, is un-American.

In her closing argument, defense attorney Janice Bassil stated that “the only idea that Tarek Mehanna had in common with al Qa’ida is that Muslims had the right and the obligation to defend themselves when they were attacked in their own lands. And we believe that. When the British came to reassert their hold over America — let’s face it, we were a colony — we fought back. We rebelled. We defended our land.”

At a time when Americans are fighting and dying in those same Muslim lands, it is hard to hear, much less embrace or welcome, such sentiments. Our troops defend us at great cost, and they need our support.

They defend the homeland.

They are also tasked to defend the Bill of Rights and the Constitution and all those rights and privileges that distinguish us from other nations.

One of those rights is the right of dissent.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” is a saying often attributed to the French Enlightenment philosopher and writer Voltaire.

That sounds like the First Amendment.

We should all get that.

This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.

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