Regaining the High Road
By Paul Findley
Jacksonville, Illinois


A few days ago in Tampa, Florida, I spoke at a vigil seeking the release of Prof. Sami Al-Arian, still incarcerated after three years confinement for allegedly supporting terrorism. He is not the only person wrongly imprisoned these days in America, but he is one I have known and respected for more than a decade.
Until charged, he was a popular tenured professor in computer science in Florida South University. In 2000, although an immigrant hoping someday to regain citizenship in an independent Palestine and therefore not qualified to vote himself, he led a campaign that prompted 90 percent of Muslim voters in Florida to support George W. Bush for president.
The margin proved to be Bush’s key to the White House, but for Al-Arian the outcome became a personal irony. He was caught in the frenzy that followed the 9/11 horror. The unpatriotic Patriot Act was enacted by a panicky Congress, and Al-Arian, an enthusiastic supporter of Palestinian causes, was among hundreds of innocent people caught in a net spread by a new army of federal investigators hunting for terrorists among the Arab Muslims in our midst.
He languishes in jail even though a jury of his peers in a six-month trial failed to pin any guilt on him. The jury found him not guilty on eight of 15 counts that charged support for terrorism, and, although unable to agree on the remaining seven counts, in each instance ten of the twelve jurors favored acquittal. All charges date back at least fifteen years.
He remains in what amounts to solitary confinement, treated as an inmate too dangerous to release. Another costly, lengthy trial on the seven unsettled counts seems likely.
In its December 19, 2005, issue, Time magazine reported that years of FBI investigation established “no real links between Al-Arian and terrorist acts. Nevertheless, says a former FBI supervisor involved in the case, in late 2002 word came down from [then Attorney General John] Ashcroft to build an Al-Arian indictment. ‘We were in shock, but those were our marching orders,’ says the supervisor who felt that the Justice Department was rushing to indict before it had really appraised the evidence.”
The evidence actually suggests strongly that Ashcroft decided, regardless of evidence, to make Al-Arian a terrorist trophy.
These are days of sacrifice and dislocation for all Americans —not just for Al –Arian. This great nation is in the grip of divisive, misdirected patriotism at home and costly war-making abroad. Once renowned as a safe haven for dispossessed and storm-tossed humankind from any corner of the earth and revered as the world champion of human rights through the rule of law, America is now sidetracked on a futile quest for security through the lethal force of arms abroad. At home,
our government pursues a double standard that harms severely the well-being of law-abiding residents like Al-Arian who seek nothing more than the protection of the civil liberties that are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
Al-Arian is, I believe, a victim of discrimination based on race and country of origin that one day will puzzle historians who attempt to examine and explain this errant period in our history.
It may be small comfort to his suffering family to know that the professor joins a long line of great people who, while incarcerated, composed some of their most moving statements. While in jail, Al-Arian has set on paper some of his finest compositions about liberty and justice.
His exoneration in the jury trial is source of great joy and perhaps surprise to many people who had despaired of a favorable outcome in any proceedings that are cast in today’s dark shadows. The opportunity for a still greater advance lies on the desk of Ashcroft’s successor as US attorney-general, Alberto Gonzalez, who knows from the experience of his parents the challenges, opportunities and joys of immigration.
Al-Arian has never been the slightest threat to our liberties. To the contrary, he is a bulwark to our precious traditions, and his release by Gonzalez would bring credit and worldwide praise to President Bush and all who serve his administration. If the attorney-general orders the dismissal of the charges left unsettled by the jury, he will quicken the spirit of all those who suffer discrimination. They will have reason to hope it heralds a new day of equal justice in this land.
The decision will help guide this troubled nation back on the high road it once proudly traveled —where America can demonstrate that true security lies in protecting liberty, not starting wars.
(Paul Findley was a Member of Congress, 1961-83, and is the author of five books, the latest being Silent No More: Confronting America’s False Images of Islam. He resides in Jacksonville, Illinois.)


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