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
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.
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
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.
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.