Friday, November 09, 2007

On lyrical terrorists

Is it possible that Gordon Brown’s United Kingdom has joined George W. Bush’s United States in the questionable practice of locking up its own citizens for things that the government believes they might do sometime in the future as opposed to things they have actually done? It certainly seems like it.

Today in London, a 23 year-old Heathrow airport employee named Samina Malik, born and raised in England, was declared guilty of possessing material likely to be useful in terrorism.

Malik was charged and tried under the United Kingdom’s rather outlandish Terrorism Act 2000, Section 58 of which permits the charging of an offense and imprisonment of up to 10 years against anyone collecting or in possession of "information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism,” a definition that would seem improbably broad. It is hard for a writer such as myself to forget, for example, that the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara was known to have studied Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and its meticulous descriptions of the Spanish Civil War while camped out with Fidel Castro's rebel army in Cuba's Sierra Maestra, or that William Butler Yeats wondered aloud, after learning that some of the Irish rebels of 1916 quoted his play Cathleen ni Houlihan as they faced the executioner: "Did that play of mine send out/Certain men the English shot?"

From everything I have read about the case, Malik indeed sounds like a somewhat, well, strange young lady. According to the Guardian, hardly a font of pro-government apologia, Malik, who authored poems with titles such as “How To Behead” and “The Living Martyrs,” apparently enjoyed collecting extremist Islamist propaganda in her spare time, including such tomes as The Al-Qaeda Manual and The Mujahideen Poisons Handbook. Malik was also apparently an aficionado of Abu Hamza al-Masri, the frothing Egyptian cleric convicted of terrorism-related offenses in Britain last year, and used the social networking site called Hi-5 to describe her favorite television shows being "watching videos by my Muslim brothers in Iraq, yep the beheading ones.”

Not exactly the kind of person you would want to be sitting across the table from on a blind date.

But how did the British constabulary apprise themselves of this? Try as I might, I could find no record of how the bobbies learned of Ms. Malik’s decidedly odd proclivities beyond a line in the Daily Telegraph that “police were alerted after finding an email from her on another person’s computer.

It would seem that, their own internment policies in Northern Ireland aside, the Brits in this instance would be borrowing a page from the rather rancid, extra-judicial “enemy combatant” status that the Bush administration has seen fit to employ. Remember the case of José Padilla, who was arrested in May 2002 and held as a material witness in relation to the September 11th attacks, then held under the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF) as an “enemy combatant” and then finally, in 2005, on charges he "conspired to murder, kidnap and maim people overseas." There may well have been rather more convincing reasoning as Padilla was alleged to have in fact met with top Al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, but the legal sleight of hand that kept him from his day in court cannot help but disturb all of us who value America’s constitution more than the current occupant of that White House at any given time.

One thing struck me about the British case, though.

Malik was also apparently a hip-hop fan, whose first creative forays were into love poetry while attending Villiers High School in Southall, and then branching out into harder, more aggressive creations modeled on Tupac Shakur and 50 Cent, using the sobriquet Lyrical Babe. That in turn, when her interests...shifted, became Lyrical Terrorist, a moniker the British press made much of.

As someone who was in Manhattan on September 11th, I seek to make no light of the ghastly potential impact of terrorism on a mass scale. But I do wonder if Judge Peter Beaumont, and Prosecutor Jonathan Sharp had bothered to familiarize themselves with the oeuvre of the Philadelphia hip-hop band The Roots, whose song Clones, from their 1996 album Illadelph Halflife (which played as one of my soundtracks for a good part of that year), featured the following couplet from MC Dice Raw:

Dice Raw the juvenile lyricist, corner store terrorist.
Block trooper, connoisseur of fine cannabis.

Focus never weak, blow up the spot like plastique.

Leave a nigga shook, to the point, he won't speak.

While I’m not suggesting that Ms. Malik’s rhyme style had reached quite the level of Dice Raw’s, it still gives one pause that one person’s poetry is another person terrorist threat, much as the rapper Ice T once pointed out his confusion as to why people harangued him but didn’t get upset when Johnny Cash would sing the line “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” I may be wrong, but something about this case makes me wonder if 30 years ago, Ms. Malik wouldn’t have been sporting a Mohawk and a safety-pin through her nose and 15 years ago taking ecstasy and dancing to the Happy Mondays. But maybe not.

It just seems to me to be a slippery slope once you start arresting people for things that you think they might do in the future. And our current crop of political leaders - who have already managed to cause death and destruction on a mass scale - would seem to be the last people in a position to judge who will and who will not be a danger to society.

Put under house arrest for the time being, Malik must return for sentencing on 6 December.

We indeed live in strange times.


Sutton said...

Yes, Michael, I too wondered about the fairness of this prosecution. I suppose it is when people's views seem most repugnant to us -- as Ms. Malik's certainly are to me -- that we must most rigorously hold ourselves to the basic standards of justice. It is easy to move on from this story after learning of the girl's taste in internet videos, and the various "manuals" and so forth that they found in her room. But if she didn't do anything, if she wasn't making concrete preparations for doing anything... well, the whole thing certainly gives one pause. And I'm sure the whole thing certainly confirms the worst suspicions of other credulous types like Ms. Malik, types we could be doing a much better job reaching, if you ask me. An important post that I'm glad to see.

Mira Kamdar said...

This is a very thoughtful piece Michael. The "slippery slope" point is well taken. Frankly, this question could also be asked of the justification for pre-emptive military strikes against particular countries.
But also chilling is the question you raise of how the authorities came to know about the disturbing poetic musings and literary tastes of this young woman. There is perhaps no other country, the United States included, where Big Brother is as much watching everybody all the time as the U.K. Any visitor is struck by the CTV cameras constantly filming you everywhere you go, sometimes following you through some kind of movement sensor as you move up a street in an otherwise quaint town or village (this happened to me in Bath) never mind London.
The U.K.'s example is one other European countries (France under Sarkozy) and the U.S. are eager to emulate. Such is the condition of freedom in our modern democracies today.