Trial and Terror

Consider this Zen koan, courtesy of John Ashcroft: Is the lawyer of a terrorist also a terrorist? Standing trial in the same federal courtroom that housed the Martha Stewart case—and, more pointedly, the Rosenberg trial—Lynne Stewart, the attorney who represented the blind radical Egyptian cleric Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, is accused of passing messages to an Egyptian terror group from the imprisoned sheik, who plotted to destroy the World Trade Center in 1993. Those messages came in the form of press releases: Stewart had signed prison-visit regulations agreeing not to broadcast the sheik’s statements, but then did so anyway. She spoke to Robert Kolker as her trial got under way.

So how does it feel to be a defendant? I have a new appreciation for my client’s position. I’m listening to the government, and the lawyer half of my brain is saying, “They can’t prove any of this.” The defendant part is saying, “Mwaaaaa! They’re not talking about me, are they?”

But didn’t you say what the government says you said? They’re saying this [information] should never have been put out. But there’s not only no connection to violence, there’s no violence.

Do you think being a good lawyer also means being a good publicist? We live in a media age, and I don’t think this kind of case can be won skulking under the raincoat and doing the perp walk. You know, although Martha Stewart said she was the first to have a Website, I had a Website a long time before her.

So broadcasting your client’s words was an act of civil disobedience? I believed it was my ethical duty to represent him, to make him available on the world stage. Not to send out messages like, The guns are hidden in the fourth sand dune. But to send out very political messages. God knows most people don’t think their lawyers are aggressive enough.

What did you think of the prosecutors’ saying you took delight in the deception? Who’s deceiving who? Are the jailers trying to listen in without having us notice it? It’s a privileged conversation. So if we attempt to make covering noises, where is the first wrong? What we did was not unusual.

You mean you make covering noises a lot? Oh, sure.

What were you thinking when the jury heard tapes of Osama bin Laden praising your client? They want to say that because in the tape bin Laden called to free Sheik Omar, I should have known that it was dangerous to make a press release. Of course, at that point bin Laden was some Saudi rich boy. He was hardly anybody on anybody’s radar screen, that’s for sure!

But this was in 2000—after the embassy bombings. And Mary Jo White had indicted him. Wasn’t he Public Enemy No. 1 by then? Oh, right, that’s true. But he wasn’t—oh, how to explain this? His connection to the sheik was illusory at best. The government did a good job, though, when they started reading the sheik’s sermons. They’re saying that because I heard them, I should have known that he was the real deal.

These included some anti-Semitic statements. There’s some anti-Semitic stuff, yes.What’s your explanation for that? I always say there’s a difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

Does the sheik make that distinction? I’m not sure, but I make that distinction. I’m not exactly going to blame people who are so under the heel themselves that they make anti-Jewish statements. I didn’t when Malcolm did it.

But you weren’t Malcolm X’s spokesperson. No.

And you were the sheik’s spokesperson. But if he wanted to send a message out to kill Jews wherever they are—which is a fatwa he never gave—I’d say, “No, I can’t do that, Sheik. That’s not gonna help your case.”

Trial and Terror