May 17, 2012
May 17, 2012
Keyboard Jihadist? The government prosecuted Tarek Mehanna because of what he wrote online. What are First Amendment rights in post-9/11 America?
May 17, 2012
It’s unusual for a domestic terrorism suspect to have a fan club. But every morning of Tarek Mehanna’s eight-week trial late last year on federal terrorism charges, supporters packed the domed, ornate courtroom in downtown Boston, smiling and waving whenever Mehanna turned to face them.
Their support was unflagging, even though Mehanna was charged with crimes prosecutors called “among the most serious a person can commit,” including material support of terrorism and conspiracy to kill American soldiers in Iraq. The government had been collecting information on Mehanna, a 29-year-old second-generation Egyptian American, for more than eight years. In court, prosecutors provided transcripts from online chats in which Mehanna had praised Osama bin Laden, calling him “my real father,” and invited friends over for “movie night” to watch a video of a beheading in Iraq that he called “Head’s Up.” Most damning, the government also claimed that Mehanna had gone to Yemen to find a terrorist training camp and had translated documents and videos at the request of al-Qaeda.
None of this evidence fazed Mehanna’s defenders. They spoke about the Mehanna they knew. A passionate and caring teacher at the local mosque. A dedicated scholar of Islam who shared his passion for arcane texts. A pharmacist who had landed a job at Saudi Arabia’s top hospital before being arrested. They accused law enforcement of targeting an upstanding member of the Muslim community for speaking his mind about America’s wars in the Middle East.
This was more than just a difference in perception. The Mehanna case represented a fundamental departure from the hundreds of domestic terrorism prosecutions in post–September 11 America. Mehanna had not been caught buying weapons from an FBI informant or parking a car bomb in Times Square. The crimes he was charged with centered on what he said and wrote—and why. Mehanna, according to the government, was part of the “media wing of al-Qaeda.” Prosecutors claimed he had lived a “double life”: a “dutiful and scholarly man” whose true self was “angry, callous, and calculating.” They argued that Mehanna’s intent was to inspire jihad through his keyboard—and that, they asserted, made his translations a crime.
But Mehanna never participated in or planned a terrorist act. He never knowingly communicated with terrorists. This was precisely the kind of case that civil libertarians had been warning about since the Patriot Act was passed in 2001. Because of a thin thread linking Mehanna’s translations to al-Qaeda, the government was asserting that the First Amendment did not protect his speech. The case raised, in a new way, the specter of how far the government will go in prosecuting citizens under the guise of keeping us safe. When does political speech cross the line into support for terrorism?
Tarek Mehanna grew up in a large suburban home in Sudbury, about 45 minutes from Boston. His father, Ahmed, taught at the nearby Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. His mother ran a day care on the first floor. The home boasts a grand foyer with a chandelier, and an enormous kitchen and dining room where the Mehannas hosted dinner parties almost weekly for other Muslim families in the area.
Mehanna’s room remains the same as it was the day he was arrested. Unlike the rest of the house, it is austere. A picture of the Hajj hangs above a twin bed. A set of weights rests on the floor. A dry-erase board lists daily goals: Memorize a page of the Quran, study one subject, read one chapter, do one round of exercises, review one page. Dominating the room are floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with leather-bound texts covered in gilded Arabic script, with a few books by Noam Chomsky and Robert Fisk mixed in. During family vacations to Egypt, Mehanna would search used-book stores for rare volumes of Islamic law and haul the books back in his suitcase.
His parents tried to strike a balance between passing down their culture and bringing up their two boys as American kids. Tarek and his younger brother, Tamer, went to public school, but they remained devout Muslims. “Praying, fasting on Ramadan, we didn’t change here,” says their mother, Souad, who emigrated from Egypt with her husband in 1978. “It wasn’t easy for them during the holidays. They felt different, a little bit, being the only one in class taking the days off.”
The Mehannas didn’t try to stop their children from assimilating. Tarek collected comic books. He told the judge at his sentencing that it was Batman, not religion, that initially formed his worldview: “Batman implanted a concept in my mind, introduced me to a paradigm as to how the world is set up: that there are oppressors, there are the oppressed, and there are those who step up to defend the oppressed.”
After comic books, Mehanna graduated to rock and roll. He wasn’t just a fan of Nirvana; Tamer says he was the resident expert among his friends. “You’d go into my brother’s room,” Tamer says, “and he had binders of histories of the band, discographies, rare LPs. My brother always wanted to know everything about what he was interested in.”
During high school, Mehanna trained that focus on history. “I read about Paul Revere, Tom Paine, and how Americans began an armed insurgency against British forces—an insurgency we now celebrate as the American Revolutionary War,” he said during his sentencing. “I learned about Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, and the struggles of the labor unions, working class, and poor.”
Mehanna was always religious, but around the time he graduated high school in 2000, he became orthodox. He was particularly inspired by America’s most famous Muslim, Malcolm X. “Malcolm’s life taught me that Islam is not something inherited, it’s not a culture or ethnicity,” he said. “It’s a way of life, a state of mind anyone can choose, no matter where they come from or how they were raised.”
Islam appealed to Mehanna because it provided an answer for the big questions: not only why we exist but also how we should exist. “And since there’s no hierarchy or priesthood, I could directly and immediately begin digging into the texts of the Quran and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad,” he said, “to begin the journey of understanding what this was all about, the implications of Islam for me as a human being, as an individual, for the people around me, for the world. And the more I learned, the more I valued Islam like a piece of gold.”
His mother watched his transformation with pride. “I wondered how they would grow up here, in a different culture with different values,” she says. “So I was happy he wanted to learn Arabic and be close to God. But at the same time, nothing had changed. We lived a normal life. We were not strict. We were very social with Americans.”
Mehanna cleaned the Nirvana records out of his room. He sold his guitar. He grew out his beard. He brought the same exacting passion to Islam that he had brought to Nirvana and Batman. He immersed himself in learning classical Arabic, which is akin to mastering Shakespearean English. He began to translate and post online ancient Islamic texts that English speakers wouldn’t have access to.
His friend Mohamed Bahe, now a radiology student in New York, got to know Mehanna by reading his blog. “He had hundreds and hundreds of translations on marriage, prayer, dealing with fellow kinsman, friends, how to be a good Muslim,” says Bahe. “His blog dealt with all aspects of life, which is what I really liked about it.”
Mehanna’s spiritual awakening came on the cusp of a traumatic time for American Muslims. First there was 9/11. In the aftermath of the attacks, thousands of Muslims in America were questioned by law enforcement. The American Civil Liberties Union reported that 70 Muslims were detained, some for months, although few were eventually charged with a crime. Then the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. Mehanna was furious over the wars. “I saw the effects of ‘shock and awe’ in the opening day of the invasion—the children in hospital wards with shrapnel from American missiles sticking out of their heads. Of course, none of this was shown on CNN,” he said. “My sympathy for the oppressed continued but was now more personal, as was my respect for those defending them.”
For a devout Muslim, there’s no drinking or carousing with women. There’s a lot of intense study and regular daily prayers. It’s hard to relate to American teenagers and their testosterone-fueled antics. Not surprisingly, Mehanna gravitated toward a small group of devout Muslims he’d known for years.
His two closest friends were Ahmad Abousamra and Kareem Abu Zahra, the children of family friends who had been coming to the Mehanna dinner parties since they were in elementary school. Tamer says Abousamra had a long-standing reputation as a rebel. “He was always going against the grain,” he says. “He combined a defiance of authority with a strong sense of assertion.” In 2002, Abousamra traveled to Pakistan twice; according to the government, he went to train as a jihadist. “He was a maverick, kind of a cowboy,” says Tamer, who now works as a business consultant. “It wasn’t easy to change his mind. He had endurance and would wear you down.”
Kareem Abu Zahra was more of a follower. According to Tamer, he started hanging out with Mehanna and Abousamra after struggling in school. “In our society, that’s a huge deal. I’m sure that left Kareem adrift, and [Islam] gave his life meaning.”
Tarek Mehanna was the intellectual of the crew. From 2001 to 2004, he continued adding translations to his blog while working toward his Ph.D. in pharmacy. He and his friends watched the wars unfold and cheered on the insurgents striking American forces. Then, according to the government, in 2004 Mehanna went from being an angry young American to something far more serious—a man willing to go to Iraq to fight U.S. soldiers.
In 2003, Abousamra had traveled to California to meet a man named Jason Pippin, who visited Yemen in the 1990s and, according to the government, trained with the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan. Pippin testified in court that Abousamra left California with a couple of names of Yemenis who could steer the three friends to the mujahideen. Abu Zahra paid for the California trip, and he subsequently gave Pippin $5,000 to come along to Yemen. (Pippin did not end up going.) Abu Zahra also paid for Mehanna’s and Abousamra’s plane tickets to Yemen as well as his own. Before departing, Abu Zahra left a martyr video for his family.
FBI agents taped conversations between Mehanna and Abu Zahra about Yemen long after the trip. Even in these private moments, Mehanna never directly acknowledged going there to find a terrorist training camp; he talked about looking for schools. However, he spoke about the trip in a cagey manner at times and appeared to refer to searching for the jihadi contacts that Pippin had passed on. At one point, Mehanna talked about searching the country for an old man he and Abousamra had been told to contact, presumably to ask where they could find a jihadi training camp. Tarek recounted what the man told them: “All that stuff is gone. Ever since the planes hit the Twin Towers.”…
Man as Machine: A peculiar experiment inspired by the Enlightenment sheds light on the age-old question of what makes us human
May 17, 2012
Once or twice a year France’s National Museum of Technology, on the nondescript rue Vaucanson in Paris, announces a special demonstration. On the second floor, at the end of a corridor of antique steam engines and jacquard looms, the museum’s Theater of Automates swings open its doors. At the bottom of a small, dark auditorium, the Keeper of Automates takes a few of his oldest, most fragile exhibits from their locked glass cases.
White gloved, wearing a lab technician’s spotless coat, he places the items gently on a table. A capacity crowd of perhaps 80 people, nine-tenths of them (it seems) screaming children, leans forward as he spreads out his gaily painted mechanical toys—automates—and under a single focused light winds them up, one by one.
The climax of the demonstrations is always the same. After the clown who tips his hat and rolls a ball, after the tin rooster that hops and crows, after a half-dozen such wood and metal creatures strut across the table and perform their stunts, the Keeper’s ghostly hands reverently lift into the light a doll seated before a miniature dulcimer.
The doll is about 18 inches high. She wears a beautiful golden silk gown. Her hair is also golden, her eyes sky blue. She was created in 1784, just before the Revolution, by a German clockmaker named Peter Kintzing and a French cabinetmaker named David Roentgen, and one year later she was presented as a gift to Marie Antoinette.
The Keeper’s fingers turn a key, and the doll begins to strike the dulcimer’s strings with two tiny hammers she holds in her long, delicate hands. This is not a music box, you understand; there is no rotating drum in sight, no clockwork brass teeth. Virtually all automates are powered by some kind of wind-up engine. In this case, a spring motor hidden under the stool sets in motion an astonishingly complicated system of cams and levers, so that the dulcimer player’s hands actually raise and lower the hammers and visibly tap the individual strings of the instrument. The doll periodically turns her head to regard, with a smile, her audience. Her chest seems to rise and fall. She actually plays her music, her admirers sigh, just like a real person.
But there are always a few who watch her performance not with admiration but with panicky unease. Once in a while, seized perhaps by the same spooky feeling that made early audiences flee movie theaters, someone will jump abruptly to his feet and hurry out. Such a person, I have had it explained to me, is probably experiencing what Freud called the feeling of the “Uncanny”—the terrifying sensation that arises when something cold and inanimate starts, mysteriously, to move and stir before us—when, say, a doll comes to life.
Automates of various kinds have been around since antiquity, as toys or curiosities. But in the middle of the 19th century, in one of the odder artistic enthusiasms the French are famously prone to, a positive mania for automates like the dulcimer player swept the country. People flocked to see them in galleries, museums, touring exhibitions. Watchmakers and craftsmen competed to make more and still more impossibly complex clockwork figures, animals and dolls that would dance, caper, perform simple household tasks—in one case, even write a line or two with pen and ink. The magician Robert Houdin built them for his act. Philosophers and journalists applauded them as symbols of the mechanical genius of the age. Like so many such fads, however, the Golden Age of Automates lasted only a short time. By about 1890 it had yielded the stage to even newer technologies: Edison’s phonograph and the Lumière brothers’ amazing cinematograph.
Yet as every novelist knows, a story always starts earlier than we think. The strange French passion for automates had its true beginnings not in the middle of the 19th century but at least a hundred years earlier, in the cool, absurdly overconfident philosophical speculations of the Enlightenment. And paradoxically enough, this passion had less to do with philosophy than with blasphemy, hypochondria, and a cheerful and Frankensteinian hubris.
We can step back outside to the little street where the Museum of Technology sits. Jacques de Vaucanson, for whom the byway is named, was born in Grenoble in 1709, at the very dawn of the Age of Reason. From earliest boyhood, he exhibited both an obsessive hypochondria and a remarkable aptitude for mechanics. At the age of six or seven, he built a clockwork boat that propelled itself across a pond. A few years later, as a novice in the religious order of Minimes in Lyon, he constructed several automates or androids—maddeningly, we have no description of them—that could serve dinner and clear away the plates. A mechanical boat was one thing. But an automate that acted like a human being! The creation of life, the monks angrily reminded their young novice, was God’s business, not man’s; Vaucanson’s experiments must cease. The frustrated youth suddenly declared (not for the last time) that he was suffering from an unnamed but grievous illness, whereupon the monks released him from his vows. He gathered his tools and sped off to Paris to study, of all things, human anatomy…
The worldwide counterfeit drug market is huge and growing. The Center for Medicine in the Public Interest estimates that in 2010 the trade reaped around $75 billion, a 90 percent increase since 2005. Over the same period, the Pharmaceutical Security Institute (PSI), of which one of us is president, documented a huge increase in discoveries of counterfeit pharmaceutical products. In 2005, it recorded over 1,000 incidents; in 2010, it recorded more than twice that. The World Health Organization previously estimated that as much as 15 percent of the medicine in circulation around the world could be fake. These drugs occupy a wide spectrum of medications, and their quality is suspect; they can be mislabeled, tainted, adulterated, ineffective, or, in the worst cases, all of the above.
Given the lack of systematic, worldwide reporting, understanding the true scope of this public health problem is difficult. However, the broad strokes of it are well known. Traditionally, regions with weak regulatory structures, such as Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia, have been both producers and consumers of counterfeit drugs. Multiple studies estimate that up to 50 percent of medicine in circulation in regions of Africa and Southeast Asia today is fake. And in 2009 alone, more than 20 million counterfeit pills were seized in China and Southeast Asia.
Data from recent fake drug busts indicate that, these days, counterfeit medicines are mainly produced in China and India. But once bottled, they are no longer sold only in the developing world. According to PSI data, between 2005 and 2010, all corners of the globe saw more discoveries of counterfeit medicine (Asia experienced a 246 percent increase, Europe a 131 percent increase, the Near East a 105 percent increase, and North America a 77 percent increase).
So even in such heavily regulated countries as the United States and Europe, fake drugs are now available — primarily through online distributors. Without any oversight, people or businesses from virtually any country with Internet access can find and purchase pharmaceuticals from somewhere else in the world. In fact, the U.S. National Association of Boards of Pharmacy recently reviewed more than 9,600 online pharmacies and found that 97 percent were “not recommended,” meaning that they did not comply with applicable laws and standards.
Last February, counterfeit Avastin, a widely used cancer drug, was detected in 19 U.S. medical practices in California, Texas, and Illinois. They apparently purchased what they thought was real Avastin from a foreign supplier known as Montana Health Care Solutions. They should have known better, as only a few distributors are authorized to sell Avastin in the United States. Montana Health Care Solutions’ owner is also a key supplier of a large Canadian online pharmacy, CanadaDrugs.com. Further investigations revealed that the fake Avastin had traveled through a number of countries, including Turkey, Egypt, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, before reaching the United States.
The counterfeit medicine market has not only grown in geographical reach; it has become broader, encompassing an ever wider range of medical products. Early counterfeit drug busts most commonly uncovered fake lifestyle drugs — primarily medicines for sexual dysfunction. However, recent research and drug seizure data have shown that copies of all types of drugs are now readily available, with lifesaving treatments for noncommunicable diseases making up an increasing share of the market. For example, PSI has found a huge jump in discoveries of counterfeit drugs for cardiovascular disease (196 percent), central nervous system problems (119 percent), genitourinary issues (132 percent), and metabolic disease (110 percent).
Drugs that treat noncommunicable diseases are expensive, in high-demand, and used over long periods, making them a lucrative target for counterfeiters. No wonder, then, that the high-profit, low-risk counterfeit drug trade is populated by organized criminal outfits, including the Russian mafia, the Chinese triads, the Colombian drug cartels, and Mexican gangs. The case of two Florida ex-convicts, Domingo Gonzalez and Julio Cruz, who generated around $10 million selling counterfeit Lipitor, highlights the attractiveness of this illicit business…