Tarek Mehanna, convicted of translating political and religious thoughts into English, taking unpopular positions in Internet discussions, traveling with questionable intent to Yemen and back, and showing disrespect to 9/11, is serving a 17-year sentence in federal prison.
A jury was convinced that if you add up all those activities formerly protected by the First Amendment, add a narrative about a “media wing of al-Qaida” – not that Mehanna ever had any contact with the real al-Qaida – and season with war-on-terror hysteria, you can call it “material support” for a terrorist organization.
Yesterday, a court of appeals doubled the injustice (background here and here).
The three-judge panel bought into war-on-terror exceptionalism. It called terrorism “the modern-day equivalent of the bubonic plague” and an “existential threat,” justifying “fierce” efforts by the government to fight it.
The opinion, written by Judge Bruce Selya, said the court must “patrol the fine line between vital national security concerns and forbidden encroachments on constitutionally protected freedoms of speech and association.”
But they didn’t patrol that line, they trampled it. They let a prosecutor looking for a Muslim scalp and a jury willing to devalue the Bill of Rights put someone to jail for his criticism of America’s military adventures. An appeals court can wipe clean the smudges a bad trial leave on the justice system. This court turned that smudge into an indelible strain.
As long as Tarek Mehanna is in jail, America is not free.