14. February 2005 · Comments Off on Crossing the Line · Categories: General

I swear, this must just be my week taking solid whacks at low-dangling piñatas— there is a mass convergence of lunacy, not a ship of fools but a bus of idiots; Ward Churchill, Eason Johnson all in play, and now Lynne Stewart, weeping all over the news about her conviction. And the full moon, according to my calendar, won’t be for another week and half; perhaps someone has been conducting sky clad rites, or there is some great eruption in the Force. Or maybe everyone is just getting back to work after Superbowl….

I had read a long magazine profile about Lynne Stewart, crusading activist lawyer a couple of years ago; first I had ever heard of her specifically, although I probably heard her name in references to her client, the Blind Sheik, the trial and conviction of whom did make the overseas papers. I can’t remember who wrote the profile or where I read it; probably one of those East-Coasty cultural organs like New Yorker or the NY Times Magazine, but the essence of the piece was immediately filed and stashed in the eccentrically organized mental filing cabinet of my memory. (Imagine drawers full of files and facts with no neatly labeled source and file number on the folders. This is why I am a killer at Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit, but have to do Google searches to verify sources, quotes and dates of publication.)

The profile on first reading seemed pretty straightforward, and rather favorable: portrait of a long-time activist for a whole range of sometimes unpopular causes and people, a principled believer in civil rights, and the law, dedicated to clients who deserved some presumption of innocence, and effective defense, a down to earth, frumpy grandmotherly sort, held in the affection of her family and close friends; the author, I sensed wanted to like her very much, wanted us in reading it to like Lynne Stewart also. But at the end of the article I had just a faint sour taste in my mouth, and uneasy mild dislike that I could really not pick out any particular reason for. There was something chill… a sense of an absence in emotion, as if a sociopath were going through all the paces, saying all the charming, engagingly friendly things, but with cold and empty eyes all the time.

There was mention of the ongoing investigation and charges of assisting Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman in communicating with his followers as a sort of threat hanging over her, but it seemed to be treated with airy dismissal, and something of no account, an exaggeration, a figment of post 9/11 paranoia on the part of an over-zealous and bigoted Justice Department. Perhaps that was where my unease crept in. This was after 9/11, after the fatwa on Salman Rusdie, after bombings and riots and murders, after assassinations in Egypt and across the Islamic world, and she thought nothing of aiding her client to communicate with his fanatical followers? At his direction, mayhem elsewhere would be unleashed… and she was carrying on as if it was nothing to do with her, as if she were the consigliore to a Mafia don; a co-conspirator rather than a defender?

I listened to her sobbing on Morning Edition last week— she sounded shocked, disbelieving, as if she had never really considered the possibility of conviction until the very roof caved in on her. And she still hadn’t gotten a clue, and I began to idly wonder why. Didn’t a competent defense lawyer have to keep some kind of detachment about a client, a boundary against identifying too closely and wandering into all sorts of ethical and emotional sand traps? If anything, she seemed to be a true believer in the innocence of her clients and the malignity of the prosecution… and did that make it easier to slip over a line, to regard some rules as dispensable if it served the client’s interest? Laws are laws, planted thick across the land, as Ben Bolt pointed out in “A Man for All Seasons” and they are to protect all of us, not to be cut down as a convenience to a client.

The thought occurred that this is a fantasy ideology; it is not the law, or the client that she has served for thirty years, it is the entrancing vision of herself, the heroine in her own fantasy, defending the indefensible. 9/11 wasn’t real, the jihad of fundamental Islam against our country isn’t real, it’s all someone else’s malign plot, and she is the star of her own heroic epic movie, and everything and everyone else are merely props and extras. It was chilling, therefore, to read an excerpt from the indictment, courtesy of Belmont Club: “Also during the May 2000 prison visit, the superseding indictment alleges that Yousry (a confederate of Abdel Rahman’s masquerading as a translator) told Abdel Rahman and Stewart about kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group in the Philippines and “Abu Sayyaf’s demand to free Abdel Rahman, to which Stewart replied, ‘Good for them.’”. Those held by Abu Sayyaf included more than a dozen children, and a German woman in poor health. Props and extras, indeed. In another interview, (courtesy of Monthly Review via Damien Penny) Ms Stewart stoutly defended the rights of some people to lock up others; “I don’t have any problem with Mao or Stalin or the Vietnamese leaders or certainly Fidel locking up people they see as dangerous. Because so often, dissidence has been used by the greater powers to undermine a people’s revolution.” (Imagine, the sheer, unmitigated nerve of those dissidents, to undermine the “people’s revolution”— it’s all up to Mao or Stalin or Fidel to set them straight, of course.)

It may also be worth pointing out that Ms. Stewart seems to have had precious little firsthand experience of actually living under the conditions imposed by a people’s revolution for months or years on end, although she may come to a greater understanding of what “locking up people” actually means, up close and personal. Lost in the fantasy ideology, where other people are only abstractions, Ms Stewart might be that kind of lofty, well-meaning intellectual, like that of the Hallam family in mystery writer Robert Barnard’s “Skeleton in the Grass”

“The Hallam world suddenly presented itself to her as two tracts of territory, separated by a ditch. Within the inner circle were the family and servants at Hallam— a warm beautiful cosy community. Beyond the ditch was humanity at large, for whom the Hallams had a great, generous love, the highest aspirations. But between the two worlds were the people in the ditch: the people among whom the Hallams lived and for whom they felt nothing… a phrase from Bleak House thrust itself into her brain; “Telescopic Philanthropy”. The Hallams kept their eyes on the horizon, on a new and better world, but they hardly noticed what went on around their feet… there was… for all their high-thinking and their social concern, a sort of lack, a sort of blankness.”.

Just that lack, that blankness, that lack of empathy with real people is what really dooms the efforts by these real life-Hallams, like Stewart, who have their eye on the new and better world… but hardly notice what goes on around their feet, or in a Philippine jungle, a Soviet gulag… or what happened to those two big office towers in the Financial district, three years ago.

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