“I really absorbed from my father the idea of standing up for people who were persecuted or otherwise down-and-out, and wanted to apply that lesson in a different way, hence my initial decision to become a public defender,” Said says in an interview. “I was fortunate enough to start my career working on a high-profile prosecution like that with political overtones, and I came to the belief that it is always important to try and get the client’s message across, especially given how the overwhelming official hostility towards anyone with the status of terrorism defendant can subvert the legal process.”
The judicial fearmongering is perhaps best encapsulated by a 2013 appellate ruling in the case of Tarek Mehanna, a Boston-area man convicted of material support for terrorism. Mehanna was not actually accused of planning any violent act. The terrorism charges were instead based primarily on an accusation that he had translated ideological materials from Arabic to English and posted them online.
In his ruling upholding Mehanna’s 17-year sentence, Judge Bruce Selya wrote, with considerable rhetorical excess, “Terrorism is the modern-day equivalent of the bubonic plague: it is an existential threat,” and he added that terrorism defendants, even ostensibly non-violent ones like Mehanna, should expect the posture of the courts toward them “will be fierce.”
Wadie Said’s critical view of these sorts of cases was shaped by his father’s scholarship, as well as his own legal studies. “My father’s books obviously had a deep impact on me, as I learned how negative stereotypes affecting whole regions, cultures, languages and religious practices of anyone who could be considered part of the Muslim world could be very overwhelming,” Said says. “Once these stereotypes migrated to the realm of criminal prosecution, I felt I should try my best to counteract and dispel them in the legal field, particularly in cases where the government wanted to put people in prison for non-violent political activism, charity and other forms of solidarity with oppressed people around the globe.”
Said has written a new book, Crimes of Terror: The Legal and Political Implications of Federal Terrorism Prosecutions, which argues that “the mentality that we are in a nebulous and continuous war on terror” has led to overzealous and unwarranted terrorism prosecutions, while eroding key aspects of the rule of law. “The excesses of the past, including the use of agents provocateurs, racial profiling and mass infiltration by informants, have all been quietly revived under the banner of fighting this ill-defined threat,” Said told The Intercept.
Since 9/11, the U.S. government has pursued extraordinary legal (as well as extralegal) efforts to combat terrorism, and in doing so has expanded the “terrorist” label far beyond its previous connotations. Said argues that measures taken by the courts have created an effective “terrorist exception” to previously existing legal standards. Crimes of Terror examines the way in which this exception has altered normal law enforcement and judicial practices at every stage of the legal cycle, from initial investigation and evidence gathering, to trial, and finally to sentencing and incarceration.