Monday, September 5, 2011

Watching the Company You Keep

From an early age parents and teachers have warned us about who we choose for our friends.  Now it would seem Uncle Sam is getting into the act. 

Under something known as the "material support" law, Federal agents may subpoena you to testify before a grand jury and/or arrest you based on suspicion of a relationship with a person or group that they consider "terrorist."  If convicted of providing aid to that person or group, a person would face up to 15 years in Federal prison. 

The material support law was originally enacted during the Clinton administration, however, it has been broadly interpreted and (to the detriment of civil liberties) greatly expanded since the attacks on September 11th.  Once intended solely to address the giving of money or munitions to groups deemed a threat to United States security, the law's scope has been broadened to include offering such services as legal counsel and language instruction as well as the providing of food and medical supplies. 

Even more disturbing for those activists working in the field of human rights is the mysterious nature of the list the FBI uses to determine which groups are terrorist organizations and which are not.  No one knows for sure which groups have been placed on this terrorist list or why. Thus every time Americans offer support (broadly defined) to people abroad, they run the risk of imprisonment. 

Such was the case of a woman who I will call S.  She travelled with a group of human rights activists to Israel simply to see firsthand the relations between Palestinians and Israelis.  For her troubles, she found herself under suspicion by the FBI.  S. was first asked to speak informally with an agent who would not explain to her the nature of the conversation.  When she refused, a subpoena summoning her before a Federal grand jury appeared.  S. refused to appear before the grand jury as well, demanding to know why she was under suspicion.  So far no further action has taken place.  She remains under suspicion and has no idea why.  Her life is essentially on hold because she took a trip to a region that is on the "watch list" of the United States. 

Listening to S. describe her tangle with the feds, I was not surprised by the government's attempt to over-reach its constitutional authority.  This trend has been common historically during times of national stress.  What bothered me more as  I heard her story was my own growing sense of paranoia.  I kept wondering if someone from the FBI was in the room. Watching us.  Taking down notes about who was speaking.  Would the audience now be drawn into their fishing net?  As a citizen of a Republic, I should not have to worry about such things.  And yet, thanks to a poorly written law that would make a first year legal student blush, the fear was there deep in my gut. 

I wish S. the best in her struggle and although I would need to know more about her case to stand up for her publicly I will say:  Shame on you President Obama and shame on you Attorney General Holder for allowing this law to stand.  I didn't expect much from the Republican leaning Supreme Court but I did hope better of two supposed liberals.  You need to fix or repeal this law ASAP.  Otherwise a lot of Americans, including former President Jimmy Carter, will find themselves in a Federal jail.  It should not be a crime to want a more peaceful and just world.  Furthermore, security should not be purchased at the price of liberty of conscience. 

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