I Guess Posting Videos Online Can Make You a Terrorist

<a target="_blank" href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/duncan/6540449921/sizes/m/in/photostream/">Flickr/Duncan</a>

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Tarek Mehanna, the Boston native who was accused of material support for terrorism based on what prosecutors said was his online advocacy on behalf of al Qaeda, was found guilty on all counts Monday

Defense lawyers argued that Mehanna did not provide support to Al Qaeda. They said he was simply expressing his own views in opposition to US foreign policy, particularly to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, activity that was protected by the First Amendment.

They also called Mehanna a budding young scholar committed to his religion, saying he had traveled to Yemen in search of education — to further his studies on Islamic law and on Arabic.

But a series of Mehanna’s former friends testified against him that he had promoted extreme ideology, endorsed the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and once called Osama bin Laden his father. Together, the former friends said, they watched videos glorifying suicide bombings in Iraq.

The verdict could turn out to be significant because Mehanna was not only accused of lying to prosecutors and seeking terrorist training in Yemen—prosecutors also charged that his translating of Al Qaeda documents and posting of extremist Internet videos was meant to sway Westerners to Al Qaeda’s cause, and therefore constituted material support for terrorism.

In the indictment, the authorities alleged that Mehanna responded to specific requests from individuals associated with Al Qaeda to translate and post materials. Prosecutors don’t seem to have raised that allegation at trial. Instead, they focused on the argument that Mehanna was responding to a general call made by Al Qaeda to spread their ideology. The distinction is important because, as I reported in my piece last week, the Supreme Court recently ruled that even nonviolent activities, if performed at the direction or under the control of a terrorist organization, could be crimes. Before, speech could only be a crime if it is both meant to and could credibly lead to “imminent lawless action.”

My personal view is that the prosecution’s other charges were strong already and Mehanna was likely guilty of those. However, by convicting Mehanna of material support for terrorism based on his online activities, the prosecution may have established a path through which the government can throw people in prison on terrorism charges for expressing abhorrent opinions, even if the individual in question has no direct ties to a terrorist organization.

For government authorities increasingly worried about the growth of the English-speaking extremist community and the possibility of homegrown terror, the Mehanna conviction may provide what is, in their view, a salutory chilling effect. For civil libertarians concerned about the government being able to prosecute ugly speech as a crime, that chilling effect is anything but salutory, because it could end up curtailing the rights of other critics of the US government, not just those who commit crimes based on their beliefs. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that at some level the US government is now in the business of policing which views are appropriate to express. 

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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