Prosecution based on thought crimes

Found this by Amy Waldman on Bruce Schneier’s latest blog posting. The article center’s around how the Unites States is now prosecuting suspected Islamic terrorists on the basis of intentions and not just their actions. It makes for a fascinating read, because it reveals how the prosecution builds its cases on different interpretations of Islam, Islamic scripture and Islamic belief – in effect, as Bruce rightly points out, they are placing the religion on trial. What’s worse, prosecuting people based on a belief or an interpretation of a belief, or because they have expressed a belief then they are a threat ( a throught-crime ) sets a dangerous precedent – one that the current administration has sidestepped:

The Bush administration did not seek legislation to authorize its new pre-emptive approach, instead relying on existing, if previously little used, laws. Key among these were two statutes—passed in 1994 and 1996 respectively—barring “material support” of terrorism, which can mean anything from personnel to funds. The laws, which were expanded under post-9/11 legislation, allow the government to bring terrorism- related charges even when no terrorism has occurred.

The article does raise some excellent points around the whole issue of the rhetoric found in Islamic Extremism:

The rhetoric of Islamic extremism may present the toughest challenge for that standard since its establishment. The question lapping at the trials’ edges—and sometimes at their core—is how the law should deal with language that does not incite but, through a long slow process, indoctrinates. On the continuum between word and deed, belief and action, where do we draw the legal lines?

I’ll concede that this is an incredibly divisive topic and I can understand why its so difficult for the judiciary to deal with this. Equally though it alarms me that a Muslim who, perhaps professes sympathy to the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza, might under this interpretation of the law find him/herself branded a terrorist.

The interpretation of Islamic texts is fraught with difficulties and extremists have been very good at using this to their advantage but that isn’t something that is at all unique to Islam. At the moment though it’s only Islam that seems to be linked so inextricably with terrorism. As Amy points out:

The question of how to interpret a text may be as old as writing, and it applies equally to determining where the power of religious speech inheres. In authorial intent? A reader’s interpretation? Historical or modern context? Over the centuries, and even today, the Bible and Christian theology have helped justify the Crusades, slavery, violence against gays, and the murder of doctors who perform abortions. The words themselves are latent, inert, harmless—until they aren’t.

What worries me the most though are the comments made one of the Jurors at a trial that Amy describes in her article:

We’re not being asked, “Did the defendant commit the crime?”—whether it’s larceny, murder, whatever. Now you’re being asked, “Is the defendant capable of doing a crime?” And I don’t think that that is in the … level of understanding of the juror.

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