Friday, October 13, 2006

Free Speech Or Treason? Another Damned Moral Dilemma

Cough cough cough (hack) cough cough cough (spit) cough cough cough (gag) – oh, sorry, I didn’t realize you were here. I’m in the final phase of cold/flu recovery: the cleansing out of the system (cough). Definitely the ickiest of the phases, and with the greatest potential to make a mess.

Now let me attempt a clumsy segue from that to another type of clean-out with great mess-making potential: America’s first treason indictment since World War Two has been handed down to Adam Gadahn, a 28-year-old Californian who converted to Islam eleven years ago and wove himself into the lunatic fringe soon thereafter. For the past several years he’s been somewhere in Pakistan making propaganda videos for al-Qaeda:

Gadahn has appeared in several al Qaeda messages speaking English and appealing to Americans. In his latest video appearance, Gadahn called for the world to convert to Islam and praised the hijackers who carried out the September 11, 2001, attacks as "dedicated, strong-willed, highly motivated individuals with a burning concern for Islam and Muslims."

That video, issued days before the fifth anniversary of 9/11, featured both Gadahn and Osama bin Laden's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri. In a September 2005 video, Gadahn referred to the 9/11 attacks as "the blessed raids on New York and Washington."

According to the indictment, Gadahn, referring to prior attacks in Europe, said, "Yesterday, London and Madrid. Tomorrow, Los Angeles and Melbourne, Allah willing. And this time, don't count on us demonstrating restraint or compassion."

Somehow, that “restraint and compassion” line strikes me as more offensive than the conversion-or-death comments preceding it. But I also know that the more something offends me, the more careful I must be to make sure emotions and feelings don’t overpower my judgment. So I’ll ignore Gadahn’s comments for now and read what the U.S. Deputy Attorney General, Paul McNulty, has to say about the case:

"A charge of treason is exceptionally severe, and it is not one we bring lightly," McNulty said at a news conference in Washington. "But this is the right case for this charge." If apprehended and convicted, Gadahn could face the death penalty.

Nicknamed "Azzam the American," Gadahn is not in U.S. custody and is believed to be living in Pakistan, McNulty said. McNulty said he believes that Gadahn has been involved in issuing propaganda but not in carrying out any terrorist attacks.

So the treason charge wasn’t for carrying out terrorist attacks, but merely issuing propaganda? The guy’s facing charges of treason for being a pundit. Take out the buzzwords like “Islam” and “al-Qaeda” and what you’ve got is someone saying “The whole world should convert to my religion, the bad things that happened are exactly what you deserve, and I hope in the future you suffer worse.”

Yes, I think these sentiments are evil. But are they treason? Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Fred Phelps have all said such things before. Remember how Katrina and September 11 were God’s judgments on America? Hell, Phelps leads protests at soldiers’ funerals where people carry placards thanking God for IEDs and September 11. The substance of such statements is no different from that of Gadahn’s.

I profoundly wish guys like Phelps would drop dead, but that’s very different from saying I think they should be executed. Not for simply expressing opinions. Yet in Gadahn’s specific case, making videos for Bin Laden’s group, saying he’s merely “expressing an opinion” doesn’t really fit, does it? It’s like describing your favorite book as merely “sheets of paper with words printed on them.” That’s true in the most literal sense but a false description all the same. And while I don’t think Gadahn’s exactly committing treason, somehow I can’t bring myself to say there should be no criminal penalties for what he’s doing.

I’m not sure if that’s emotion or reason speaking. I’m too busy coughing to figure it out.

We’ve got two extremes here: on one end of the spectrum, have the government give Gadahn the death penalty or life in prison for expressing his opinions; and at the other end have the government leave him strictly alone because he’s merely expressing his opinions. I don’t like either one of those choices, but I haven’t figured out yet just where in the middle I stand.

Is there a point where free speech becomes “aid and comfort to the enemy,” and what’s the slippery-slope potential in setting one?


Anonymous Wild Pegasus said...

If he cut videos rejoicing about bombing GE facilities, would you feel the same way?

- Josh

1:09 PM  
Anonymous Anne O'Neimaus said...

Treason is when our Chief Executive and other members of our government deliberately work to subvert the Constitution, in direct contradition to their oaths to "...protect the Constitution against all enemies internal and external..."

1:47 PM  
Blogger Anne O'Neimaus said...

Of course, this is just government-driven hysteria gone wild, again, like
. I violently disagree with what the man says, but as long as it's just talk, I think we have to allow it. Heck, we allow the KKK to hold marches and rallies, and I think they should qualify as a terrorist organizatiion by any reasonable standards.

2:30 PM  
Anonymous Grant Gould said...

The difference from Phelps and his lot, silly though it may be, is the constitutional requirement that treason comprise "adhering to [the US's] enemies." While Phelps may be equally vile, it's hard to argue that he's adhering to anyone the US is at war with.

Which is not to say that I would oppose flinging him at an al Qaeda headquarters somewhere to see if he sticks.

4:26 PM  
Anonymous Brad Warbiany said...

The guy has joined a terrorist group that is a declared enemy of the United States. I find it hard to understand how this is not treason.

He's not just expressing his opinions. He has, by joining Al Qaeda, taken up arms against the US. That is treason.

6:13 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

He's not just expressing his opinions. He has, by joining Al Qaeda, taken up arms against the US. That is treason.

Well, that's why I say I'm not comfortable with just letting him go on his merry way. But at the same time, he hasn't attacked any Americans or helped in plans to do so--he's being charged with treason solely based on what he says and who his friends are.

That precedent would make me uncomfortable even if we didn't have a president who has more than once said things like "you're with us or you're with the terrorists" and "my political opponents are helping al-Qaeda."

7:13 PM  
Blogger rhhardin said...

I'd say the thing you want to punish is violating some assumptions about you and loyalty to the country as a whole, assumptions that allow civil life to occur without everybody being on their guard against turncoats.

If you declare you're with the enemy and leave, that's fine. You're not taking advantage of any slack people had been giving you.

This doesn't clear everything up (for example the NYT undermining, rather than disagreeing with, Bush's strategy, because it will not only prove him wrong but gain political advantage).

6:36 AM  
Anonymous Alex said...


The thing is, he hasn't just said stuff, he's said stuff while joining an organiation that commits mass murder. He's there with the mass murderers (or at least their sponsors) making recruiting videos.

I don't know how effective his recruiting videos have been (probably not very effective, to put it mildly), but you don't have to be a successful criminal to be a criminal.

If some crazy guy stands on a street corner and says "I love Osama!", well, there's crazy dudes saying all sorts of stuff. If the same guy actually knows where Osama is and continues to hang out with him rather than giving away the location, at the very least he's helping Osama with his silence. He's an accomplice. He's keeping secrets because he wants to, not because he's afraid. (I wouldn't punish a terrorist's battered wife, for instance.) If he goes even further and makes recruiting videos with sponsorship from Osama, then he's an active (if not terribly effective) member of the organization.

You still punish the would-be murderer whose bullet misses.

Now, having said all that, let me make one thing quite clear:

THIS GUY SHOULD GET A FAIR TRIAL BEFORE A JURY, WITH THE ASSISTANCE OF A DEFENSE LAWYER AND ALL THE OTHER STUFF WE USED TO TAKE FOR GRANTED IN THIS COUNTRY. He should have an opportunity to prove that I've mischaracterized his involvement, that he isn't keeping anybody's secrets, and that his videos aren't actually achieving anything.

6:58 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

I suppose you're right, Alex and Brad. But still--this just doesn't sit comfortably with me.

10:05 AM  
Anonymous Heather said...

Excellent post!

11:55 AM  

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