Al-Arian arrest makes War on Terror personal

Even now I still can’t quite believe it. The television kept repeating the pictures, but it was difficult to accept what I was seeing. There he was, the cardigan-clad, bespectacled figure, familiar from so many Oracle front pages, the tenured USF professor and member of our community, Sami Al-Arian manacled and in the clutches of the feds for all the world to see.

Thursday morning brought with it the realization that the War on Terror was more than military action in a distant land, more than political rhetoric to assuage national anxiety in the wake of Sept. 11. The War on Terror was real and on our doorstep.

As the news unfolded throughout the morning, it just became more and more difficult to swallow. Although the story has garnered some national coverage, the Sami Al-Arian affair has, for the most part, been a big story in our small pond. It took the sight of the Attorney General of the United States, each accusation falling gavel-like on Al-Arian’s future, and hearing our university cited as a cover for terrorists in John Ashcroft’s clipped legal tones for the penny to really drop. This is not our little controversy anymore; this story will play out before the eyes of the world.

And it went on. I kept waiting for Ashcroft to finish, but the charges kept coming. Anyone familiar with the case knew the accusations leveled at Al-Arian were far from trivial, but few, if any, could have anticipated the seriousness of the allegations against him. Head of the U.S. arm of Palestinian Jihad, conspiracy to kill, leader of the Tampa cell of Islamic Jihad — it was difficult to reconcile this Al-Arian, the same man who once stood in front of classes full of USF students, with the Al-Arian whose wife and daughter I have come to know and respect.

Not surprisingly, the sight of Al-Arian in custody has engendered a told-you-so smugness among the “fire-him” lobby, but many in this group would do well to examine their motives for supporting the flimsy justification initially cited for Al-Arian’s dismissal. Too many people for far too long have harbored a dislike for Al-Arian without ever being able to explain why. Al-Arian’s arrest, and even subsequent conviction, is not a vindication of the prejudice and intolerance he has long been subject to simply for being an outspoken member of a minority group.

It is anticipated that Al-Arian’s defense will challenge the admissibility of much of the evidence presented in the 120-page federal indictment. If successful, this would be the worst of all scenarios for USF. The specter of Al-Arian, freed on legal technicalities and demanding re-employment, would haunt the university’s administration.

But it should not come to that. If Al-Arian believes in the morality of the actions it is alleged he has committed, then it is time for him to stop hiding under the hard-earned freedoms of this country and accept the consequences of those beliefs.

If, as Al-Arian currently maintains, he is innocent, then out of respect for his family and the many well-intentioned people who have given freely their time and talents to support him, he should instruct his defense to challenge all the evidence presented. Freedom achieved in any other manner will leave a dark shadow of guilt over him for the remainder of his days.

Chris O’Donnell is a sophomore majoring in mass