The title of this piece is a summary of events that no doubt sensationally portrays what has happened between the Guardian, Tarek Mehanna and Ross Caputi. But this scenario is worthy of serious contemplation for the security services, justice system and for all the individuals involved.
To bring you up to speed, Tarek Mehanna was recently found guilty of conspiracy to kill Americans overseas and of giving material support for terrorism.
He was sentenced to 17 years in prison. While his lawyers tried to represent him as a modern day Martin Luther King or even more spuriously, Nelson Mandela – a jury of his peers returned the verdict of ‘guilty’, acknowledging his role in criminal conduct.
It is reported that Mehanna travelled to Yemen in December 2004 to seek training at a terrorist camp, after which he planned to go to Iraq and fight against U.S soldiers. The judge in the case stated that he was “concerned about the defendant’s apparent absence of remorse” and when Mehanna was sent down, his family and friends delivered him a standing ovation.
I have my own concern about lack of remorse based on a recent Guardian Comment is Free article written by an Iraq War veteran who, as free as he walks, insists that what he did in Fallujah was ‘terrorism’ and writes openly in the Guardian, “I, too, support the right of Muslims to defend themselves against US troops, even if that means they have to kill them.”
This shocking statement from Ross Caputi is the kind of dangerous nonsense from someone tied up with the Stop The War Coalition, who recently introduced Noam Chomsky at an event and who seems to have become a Guardian poster boy since his article entitled, ‘I am sorry for the role I played in Fallujah’.
Firstly, if Caputi is indeed adamant about his role in ‘terrorism’ then one wonders why he hasn’t marched himself down to the local police station, courtroom or military tribunal demanding the ‘justice’ he so vehemently campaigns for on behalf of convicted terrorists. It seems the Iraq vet thinks he can alleviate this double standard by writing a groveling letter of apology to The Guardian, where he apologises for attacking Iraqi insurgents and al-Qaeda operatives who he claims were ‘defending their city’. In reality, these groups were attacking as many Iraqi civilians and security forces as they were coalition forces in the city and just to be clear, The Guardian is not, despite what its editors may think, a part of the justice system or somewhere Caputi should be able to alleviate his guilt publicly.
Next, Caputi goes on to write about the murder of his friends in a romantic fashion – glorifying their killers, “How can I begrudge the resistance in Fallujah for killing my friends?” He classes himself as an ‘invader’ and ‘aggressor’ but makes no mention of the fact that it was al-Qaeda who fought in amongst civilians, oppressing them, using home and mosques and civilian areas as munitions stores. I’m inclined to agree with one of his opening statements where he claims he had no idea what was going on in Fallujah – it appears he still does not.
By no means am I excusing the killing of civilians and the use of depleted uranium or white phosphorus as weapons, by the way. But it is important to keep a level head on these issues and perhaps through no fault of his own and some would argue understandably, Caputi cannot. When reading his work, it is evident to anyone with even a vague sense of the importance of factual evidence and strategic realities that Caputi cannot reconcile the geopolitical and moral imperatives with the memory of the war in his own mind.
He links to the ‘Iraq Body Count’ website which in fact does little to back up his claims that U.S. troops were mainly to blame for civilian deaths. They played a major role for reasons given earlier, as well heavy-fire tactics used during the invasion years – but insurgents and post-invasion criminal violence caused the lions share of civilian deaths. The website, the very same that Tony Blair cites in his recent memoir, states, “Killings by anti-occupation forces, crime and unknown agents have shown a steady rise over the entire period”. Yet these are the forces that Caputi supports when he writes, “I’m not afraid to profess my support for Tarek Mehanna, or to advocate for his ideas”.
Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. sentenced Tarek Mehanna to 17 years in prison (less than the 25 called for by the prosecution) and while Ross Caputi’s confused and dangerous rants can be dismissed as the misguided, angry and stress-related consequences of war, it is less apparent why The Guardian should see fit to print such a piece which not only advocates terrorism and supports a convict, but is also factually flawed and fuels incitement to violence against foreign troops abroad.
Even one of the more sympathetic jurors who laments Mehanna’s long prison sentence acknowledges that he was a radical obsessed with violence, jihad and on the killing of U.S. troops. Perhaps Caputi’s defense of Mehanna would be less robust if it had been he that was targeted – or perhaps in such an extreme case, it would have driven him even further.
But ‘free speech’ is always the elephant in the room in cases like this. What is to stop The Guardian, Ross Caputi or even Tarek Mehanna from speaking their minds on such issues – even if it leaves the bitterest of tastes in our mouths?
The legal implications are complex, but in Britain, Caputi’s statements of support for Mehanna, including we assume from his words, his trip to Yemen and interest in fighting in ‘the resistance’ in Iraq is not just endorsement of terrorism but also proliferation, glorification and tantamount to incitement. His piece supports the killing of American soldiers abroad and could indeed be criminal under USC 2339A – ‘providing material support to terrorists’ and in Britain ‘inciting murder for terrorist purposes overseas’.
In Mehanna’s case under U.S. law, a 1969 Supreme Court case which the ‘Brandenburg test’ is derived from sets a precedent. For criminality of speech to be inferred, you have to be able to show that it would lead to ‘imminent lawless action’. Mehanna’s defence argued that he did not do this, but rather he was prosecuted for conspiring to kill American soldiers and supporting Al-Qaeda – far more heinous crimes.
The question now arises of what happens to Caputi, since it was he himself writing in the Guardian Comment Is Free (America) who originally wrote, “I have done everything that Tarek Mehanna has done, and there are only two possibilities as to why I am not sitting in a cell with him: first, the FBI is incompetent and hasn’t been able to smoke me out; second, the US judicial system would never dream of violating my freedom of speech because I am white and I am a veteran of the occupation of Iraq.”
Here, Caputi sets himself up as a hero – his status as a veteran of the war in Iraq he argues, precluding him from the arms of the law. Neither of the stated reasons is accurate, as Caputi did not travel to Yemen looking for terrorist training, nor did he conspire to assist al-Qaeda. To the best of our knowledge, he also never conspired to kill American soldiers overseas – unless he knows something we don’t know? However he does raise a valid point. Since he is in fact, openly inciting terrorist acts abroad, what do British and American courts intend to do about it?
Typically, going after someone like Caputi would not be worth the time and money it would the government to prosecute him, even if they could be sure of a conviction. What makes this incident even more telling for the rational amongst us is Caputi’s own admission of being somewhat of a less than perfect soldier – not the ‘hero’ the FBI would have to think he was in order to, as he asserts, violate his freedom of speech. In fact, reading his blog it is easy to see that Caputi is indeed not the prim and proper Iraq veteran he masquerades as, nor was he privy to the kind of primary source information one might think The Guardian editors would look into:
“My unit got called into Camp Fallujah a couple of weeks before the 2nd assault. I was a buck private at the time and had recently been demoted for a number of charges from underage drinking to theft to general conduct unbecoming of a Marine. I was even moved out of my old infantry platoon because I just was not listening to anyone in charge of me, and they made me the Company Commander’s radio operator instead.”
This Chomsky-fanatic, who has only just surfaced in the mainstream, poses a serious threat to rational and evidence-based discourse about the war in Iraq, its consequences and the ongoing terrorist threat. Since he’s so adamant that he was a terrorist in Fallujah – I’m tempted to suggest that Caputi should be frog-marched to the nearest courtroom and forced to stand trial under his own admission of guilt. The reality is though, as he conveniently leaves out of his Guardian articles, he was scarcely ever around to witness what happened. “Most of the time” he admits, “I was perfectly safe with the officers, and there was no fighting within my immediate vicinity”.
Raheem Kassam is the Executive Editor of The Commentator. He tweets at @RaheemJKassam