BOSTON — In a federal courtroom in Boston, newly chosen jurors heard two narratives about an American-born kid from Sudbury that couldn’t have been farther apart.
In the government’s telling of the story, Tarek Mehanna devoted himself to advancing the cause of killing Americans. In the telling of his own lawyers, Mehanna was a boy to make his mother proud, an American of conscience, who used cherished freedoms to speak his mind.
It’s not everyday that you get to see Osama bin Laden in a Boston courtroom. Then again, you don’t often get to see Santa Claus either. But yesterday Courtroom Nine had both.
First bin Laden, who though he never got an American trial of his own, was called up onto a video screen in Mehanna’s trial and used to link him to al-Qaida and the call to arms.
As prosecutor Aloke Chakravarty began his hour-long statement to jurors, “Osama Bin Laden” were the fifth, sixth and seventh words out of his mouth.
“When Osama bin Laden used [the word jihad], and later when this defendant used it,” Chakravarty said, “it meant fighting with and killing American soldiers.”
With bin Laden’s voice and face filling the courtroom filled with Mehanna’s supporters, the prosecutor informed the jury that Mehanna had translated bin Laden from Arabic into English, “all from the comfort of his cushy bedroom in Sudbury.”
“When [Mehanna] published them and distributed them, they had the label ‘this is a product of al-Qaida,’” the prosecutor said. Mehanna acted as the English language wing of the propaganda machine and encouraged people to jihad.
“When you’re making it more accessible to people around the world, that’s a vital service,” the federal prosecutor intoned.
That so-called “vital service” is tantamount to “providing material support to a terrorist organization,” which is at the heart of the main charges in this case.
“Translation is not a crime. Tarek’s already got too much time. Translation is not a crime. Tarek’s already got too much time,” Mehanna supporters shouted outside of the courthouse.
Mehanna supporters insisted that he had been unfairly targeted for his political views and his Islamic beliefs. But on a day of contrasts, a small but combative contingent was holding a counter rally and a sign thanking the FBI for protecting the country from terrorism.
“Terrorism is at the end of a long process of incitement and indoctrination and that’s what’s happening. They’re inciting, they’re indoctrinating,” said Dr. Charles Jacobs.
Jacobs is a columnist for the Jewish Advocate, a longtime media watchdog and critic of what he calls the failure of the federal government and the Jewish community to deal with Anti-Semitism and Islamo-Nazis.
“We’re saying what he is teaching people and what he is saying is despicable. And for any moderate Muslim leadership to defend that and not to shun him and condemn his views is really an index of who they are,” Jacobs said.
Language that is harsh, offensive, unpopular, and disturbing has more to do with the case against Mehanna than any physical acts. The government does not charge Mehanna with committing physical jihad or violence.
“I believe this case is about the defendant’s rights to express his views publicly on a controversial subject. In the United States that freedom of speech is what makes us great, what makes us strong, and what makes us free,” said Mehanna’s attorney, J.W. Carney.
When you hear someone is a terrorist, it’s scary, Carney told the jurors. But with his hand on Mehanna’s shoulder, the lawyer said his client is innocent.
Now came the other narrative, of the son of parents from Egypt who “came to this country because they wanted to speak their beliefs without fear.”
In an attempt to soften his defendant’s image, Carney showed jurors photos of the grade schooler learning how to hit a baseball, playing rock n’ roll guitar, and in the most incongruous photo of all, sitting in the lap of Santa Claus.
How Mehanna traveled from Santa’s lap to Nirvana fan to religious scholar seeking the purest form of Islam to the admiration of bin Laden was an arc J.W. Carney touched only lightly.
“[Mehanna] didn’t hide his beliefs, he wore them on his sleeve,” Carney told the jurors.
Carney underplayed just how offensive and disturbing some of Mehanna’s emails, instant messages and secretly recorded statements were.
“Independent advocacy of [his] beliefs, even if they are held by al-Qaida, is not a crime in the United States,” he reminded the jurors.
It’s a case that clearly pushes the reach of federal law into new territory and brings the criminal statute of material support for terrorist organizations where it’s not been brought before. Carney tried to brace up the jurors.
“We are the United States. We are not afraid of what other people say. Or at least we are not supposed to be,” he said.
In what’s expected to be a six-to-eight-week trial, it was quite a first day.