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Where hard evidence is lacking, fear fills the void

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 30, 2001


If Sami Al-Arian is a terrorist, he's a dumb one.

He should have known better than to go on Fox TV last week with Bill O'Reilly, a man over whom even other journalists despair.

O'Reilly cashed in on the fears that have gripped Americans since Sept. 11. He used our national anxiety to justify going after Sami Al-Arian like a dog chasing meat.

Al-Arian has since been the target of death threats. He does not go out alone. He has been suspended from his teaching job at USF.

This is what has been done to him.

And this is why: He once helped a man, who turned out later to be a terrorist, to enter the U.S.

Ramadan Abdullah Shallah left a think tank at USF six years ago and soon took over the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Knowing somebody is not a crime, and there has been no suggestion that Shallah's organization was part of Osama bin Laden's murderous network.

After that, the picture gets fuzzy. No evidence showing Al-Arian is a terrorist has been made public, and no charges have been filed.

Al-Arian also knows a man who led ABC News to bin Laden so American reporters could interview him.

O'Reilly called that man a suspected terrorist. Al-Arian contends the man is an Arab journalist cooperating with the FBI.

Al-Arian also is brother-in-law to Mazen Al-Najjar, who was held on secret evidence for three years.

Again, knowing somebody is not a crime.

What has happened to Sami Al-Arian is an example of what has all too often occurred when Americans are gripped by panic about our security. We forget the best that we are.

Socialist Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned for speaking out against American involvement in World War I.

Soon after the war came the Palmer Raids. Six thousand people, immigrants mostly, were arrested in the raids for being radicals.

During World War II, 120,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned.

After the war, Joe McCarthy ruined lives and wrecked careers by calling people Communists.

Under the circumstances, then, Sami Al-Arian's story might have been predicted.

But in every case, the fears were exaggerated. Those targeted by the government were usually innocent.

This is what Al-Arian said after the attacks in New York and Washington:

He wants the people responsible brought to justice, but opposes a war if civilians were killed. "That would be as wrong as targeting innocent civilians in New York and Washington," he said.

He said this at a news conference on Sept. 19 where another local Muslim leader called the terrorists "people who really don't belong to the human race."

Later, he took a group of Muslim schoolchildren to the Ice Palace memorial for the victims of the terrorist attacks. He is a resident alien, but vows that, after 26 years in this country, he feels like an American.

Now, you could argue with Al-Arian's position on the war -- I do -- but if you believe in the right to dissent, you ought to be able to hear what he said.

You could also wish you knew more about the shadowy charges of terrorist ties involving a group Al-Arian once ran in Tampa, the Islamic Committee for Palestine, or one he participated in, the World and Islamic Studies Enterprise. I do.

But until there is proof of wrongdoing, aren't we supposed to give him the benefit of the doubt?

If not, does that mean the rules for being an American are changing?

God help us if they do. Then the fight is over. The terrorists will have won. It will no longer matter how shabbily some of us treat Sami Al-Arian.

- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813)-226-3402.

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