The Terror About Terrorism

By David Feige

My father called me this morning.

"Hi Buddy." He said. 

"What's up Pops?" He doesn't usually call me this early.

"Do me a favor:" he sounded serious.  "Don't take any terrorism cases."

He was talking, of course about the conviction, Thursday, of Lynne Stewart on charges that she aided and abetted terrorists.  Now I knew Lynne-I saw her many times in the well-worn hallways of Bronx Supreme Court, where she was arguing cases on behalf of poor, mostly unknown clients.

Of course it was a high-profile one that got her in trouble.  Lynne represented Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind cleric convicted in connection with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

There isn't a huge dispute about what happened.  After the sheik was convicted and imprisoned, Lynne made statements to the press on his behalf despite having signed an agreement to abide by restrictive administrative measures designed to muzzle him.  Essentially, Lynne's decision to advocate for the Sheik keeping his case in the spotlight was what was on trial. According to the government, by making those statements Lynne became part of a terrorist conspiracy.  

Imagine for a moment, spending 6 months of your life on trial  for doing what you thought was your job.   It's the kind of experience that, win or loose makes you never, ever want to mess with the government again. And that is both the point and the problem.

The indictment alone had a chilling effect on defense attorneys and the conviction as my father's anxious phone call amply demonstrates, may well mean the government gets what it really wants-a docile defense bar that refuses to touch terrorism cases for fear of becoming target's themselves.

You know--there aren't a lot of people out there willing to forgo the easy riches that come with a law degree to do the tough and unpopular work of defending poor reviled clients. And there are even fewer who are both good at it and passionate about it-Lynne Stewart was of them. And while that made her great in the eyes of the poor and the despised, it also made her a perfect target for a bully government looking to re-draw the lines of appropriate advocacy.

The trial was a monster-6 months and nearly 90 thousand tape recorded calls to home phones and cell phones around the world, all culled and analyzed for hints of Ms. Stewart's complicity. The tapes though didn't really show much.

But unfortunately, for Ms. Stewart, the government had something else too-it had fear. During the course of the trial, prosecutors played a pre-9-11 videotape in which Bin Laden threatens to attack the US as a means of winning the Sheik's release from prison.  This, despite the fact that as the judge pointed out, Bin Laden was not a part of the case against Ms. Stewart.

This conviction sends the strong message that where terrorism is concerned, our citizens may no longer accept the vigorous defense of unpopular people. Unfortunately, the conviction means something else too--that the terror about terrorism has yet to give way to rationality. That, as the president seems to suggest, flaunting pictures of Osama Bin Laden may still be enough to justify any policy or convict any defendant. But as Lynne might have said, as scary as Osama Bin Laden might be, the only greater terror than terrorism is a society that abandons the principles that protect us all.

David Feige, a public defender in the Bronx and a Soros Media Justice Fellow, is the author of the book "Indefensible", to be published in 2005.

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