Looking for Heroes? Go to Boise, Idaho

  If you want an example of real heroes in the "war on terrorism," go to Boise, Idaho.

Look for 12 of your fellow citizens who recently spent long hours on uncomfortable chairs in a windowless room in the local federal courthouse.

These are the jurors who recently found Sami Omar Al-Hussayen innocent of terrorism charges. They may have not put their lives on the line chasing Taliban gunmen through remote caves, but they are American heroes nonetheless.

In case you missed this case, Al-Hussayen is a 34-year-old man from Saudi Arabia studying computer science at the University of Idaho. In February 2003, FBI agents swept through the small, quiet, panhandle town of Moscow, Idaho, throwing Al-Hussayen into a truck and then a jail cell.

In cryptic comments to reporters, federal prosecutors said Al-Hussayen was using computer networks to raise money for terrorists. They couldn’t say much at the time of arrest, they said, but ample evidence would be forthcoming.

I remember the chills I received first hearing that news. I’m not only a University of Idaho graduate, but I grew up in that small college town on the Palouse Prairie. My father was an agriculture professor at the University of Idaho, who often took foreign students under his wing. Our family dining room table regularly hosted students from many of impoverished parts of the world like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Middle East. Places today associated with car bombs and jihads.

I was torn. On one hand, I found the prospect of a terrorist using the friendly, open community of Moscow as cover for plotting mass murder deeply unsettling. On the other, as a former courtroom reporter, I wanted facts. I’ve seen too many prosecutors melt and their cases crumble under the spotlight of carefully examined evidence.

In times of danger, human beings are prone to panic. This is as true of nations as it is of individuals, and the United States is not immune. During World War II, the United States panicked, rounding up and locking away thousands of American citizens, depriving them of freedom and property, not because they were criminals, but because they were of Japanese ancestry.

Of course, America was at war with Japan, but we were also at war with Italy and Germany, and we didn’t round up Americans with these backgrounds.

In my mind, a true hero is a person who doesn’t panic. He or she acts thoughtfully, thinking of the good of everyone. That’s what those jurors did, and in times like these, that takes guts. The easy thing would have been to send this man — bearded, dark, foreign — to a cell forever. It would have been easy to lump him with his countrymen who were among the 19 terrorists who used airliners as missiles on Sept. 11, 2001.

But the jurors knew doing so would have given one more victory to the terrorists. They would have forfeited precious American freedoms — the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Guilty not by suspicion, or because the government says so, but guilty because of evidence beyond reasonable doubt. And they would have sacrificed the freedom to write and read what one wishes to, whether it’s in a university library or on your personal computer.

"There was a lack of hard evidence,'' juror John Steger told the Associated Press. "There was no clear-cut evidence that said he was a terrorist, so it was all on inference.''

Some folks may have been surprised by the jury’s verdict. After all, Idaho is known more for its neo-fascists than its civil libertarians. But I wasn’t surprised.

This case was highlighted as an early case study of the USA Patriot Act, the aggressive law aimed at stemming terrorism. The law is criticized by many as being too hard on civil rights. In other parts of the nation, groups on the left, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have criticized the law. In Idaho, a staunchly conservative Republican, Rep. Butch Otter, has been the leading critic of the Patriot Act.

Idahoans may not like rules much. They may be a bit cold to folks who are different from them. They may not take to a lot of new ideas sprouting out of the cities. But they know freedom, and in this case, they defended it.

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Kalispell, Montana.