Since 9/11, the Department of Justice has prosecuted more than 500 terrorism cases, yet there remains scant public understanding of what these federal cases have actually looked like and the impact they have had on communities and families. Published by The Nation in collaboration with Educators for Civil Liberties, the America After 9/11 series features contributions from scholars, researchers and advocates to provide a systematic look at the patterns of civil rights abuses in the United States’ domestic “war on terror.”
* * *
Oussama Kassir received a four-month punishment for saying “As-salaam alaikum” to another prisoner. Forbidden from talking to other inmates or corresponding with anyone but his immediate family, Kassir was held in solitary confinement and denied access to the outdoors or even to direct sunlight. To protest his conditions, he went on a hunger strike and was force-fed at great pain, according to his lawyer.
But Kassir was not being held at Guantánamo. He was being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan, where he spent eighteen months in pretrial detention under these draconian conditions. Kassir, a Lebanese-born Swedish national, faced eleven charges stemming from his connections with an attempt to establish a terrorist training camp in Bly, Oregon. The Swedish government had investigated several of the charges but dropped them all for insufficient evidence. The Czech Republic, where Kassir was apprehended, would extradite him to the United States only on the condition that Kassir would not be sent to Guantánamo. So he was sent to New York, where he nonetheless encountered serious abuses of his human rights, but no public outcry.
For the vast majority of Americans, there are few (if any) names that jump to mind when it comes to federal terrorism defendants. By and large, their cases are known by the gimmicky phrases attached to them when the indictments are announced: “Herald Square bomber,” “dirty bomber,” “underwear bomber.” Media coverage follows a typical pattern: first, sensationalized top-of-the-news coverage of the initial arrest—often with lurid details about “thwarted plots” and the suspect’s alleged “radicalization” taken without question from the indictment—accompanied by relief that the bad guys are being nabbed. This is followed by months, if not years, of media silence and, finally, coverage during the trial, which is usually limited to general courtroom observation with little critical analysis of the pretrial conditions, the nature of the evidence, or the pattern of government conduct across these cases.
Twelve years after 9/11, there have been more than 500 federal terrorism prosecutions, but Americans have little sense of what these cases look like in the aggregate. Nor do we know the impact they have had on communities and families. So we end up with a lasting national consciousness of a “dirty bomber” who was never even indicted for—much less convicted of—having a dirty bomb. Or the “Herald Square bomber,” who actually told his government handler days before the alleged plot that he would need to check with his mother before doing anything. Or the “Liberty City Seven,” allegedly dead-set on bombing the Sears Tower—who, in reality, were so poor that they couldn’t finance a trip to Chicago or buy weapons of any kind, and didn’t even have the money for a camera to take photos of “targets.” (They wound up using one provided by the FBI.)