This semester at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, a professor kicked off a seminar on newspaper reporting by asking his students a few questions. One woman, he knew from his files, had attended the University of South Florida. “Were you there when that professor was arrested?” he asked.
The student—a very pretty, serious-looking young woman with dark eyes and a turquoise and blue hijab—paused for a moment and then, somewhat haltingly, recounted for the class the controversy surrounding an outspoken computer-engineering professor who rose to national prominence in the movements for Palestinian independence and immigration-policy reform during the 1990s (winning audiences with Karl Rove and several members of Congress on the latter subject), before being indicted, imprisoned, and put on trial on charges of conspiring with Palestinian terrorists in the wake of 9-11.
Later, when the class took a break, the student went up to her professor. “You caught me off guard,” she said quietly, “Because the professor you mentioned is actually my father.”
With that, Laila Al-Arian—who is 24 and aspires to be a Mideast correspondent—began a semester of learning how to be a proper witness to history while simultaneously being mugged by it. The trial of her father, Sami Al-Arian, was then winding into its fourth month in a Tampa, Florida federal courthouse, and was expected to produce a verdict sometime around final exams, in December. Reluctant to have her fellow student-journalists turn their notebooks on her, Laila resolved to keep quiet at school about her father’s trial, which has been considered a dry run of the Patriot Act’s expansion of prosecutorial powers. “I generally haven’t divulged,” she said sitting in her apartment this November, adding with a blush, “One of my roommates doesn’t know.”
The low point of the academic season, without a doubt, came just before Thanksgiving, when Laila made a weeklong trip back home to Tampa for closing arguments. (Her class was studying court-reporting; she figured she had it covered.)
There in a cavernous federal courtroom, Laila listened to Cherie Krigsman, a blond-haired fortyish woman with bangs, deliver the prosecution’s closing remarks in a tone of belligerent folksiness. Sami Al-Arian “can dish out the whoppers as easily as you and I say good morning,” the prosecutor said. “When you’re deliberating the evidence, remember just how educated and sophisticated these defendants are.”
Regarding a wiretapped phone call Al-Arian made to the head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in 1994, Krigsman said, “He picked up the phone and called Fathi Shiqaqi just like you and I pick up the phone and order pizza.” Regarding the absence of evidence that Al-Arian ever even knew about attacks before they happened, she granted that he didn’t involve himself directly with violence, “just like Sam Walton didn’t stock the shelves at Wal-Mart.”
By the time Krigsman’s argument reached its climax—a comparison between Al-Arian’s academic enterprises and Tony Soprano’s waste disposal business—Laila had fled the courtroom. “I felt like throwing up,” she said.
The defense’s argument, which followed, was unabashedly high-toned. William Moffitt, a large, bald-pated black man with a moustache that droops down past the corners of his mouth, recited generous portions of the Declaration of Independence. He argued that Al-Arian was merely being pilloried for agreeing publicly with the most vociferous opponents of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Moreover, he said, even though the Patriot Act had made available to the prosecution 472,000 secretly wiretapped phone calls, all that evidence was sufficient only to show that Al-Arian agreed with those views passionately, frequently, and mostly before 1995. (Also that he sometimes disagreed with them.)
Still, looking over at the jury, which had been selected largely on the basis of its members’ disinclination to read the news, Laila worried over Moffitt’s approach. “I don’t know how it’s going to resonate with them,” she said.
She was largely pessimistic as she returned to classes in Morningside Heights that week and as the 13 jurors set about their deliberations. Nor did it help her outlook when a poll by the Tampa Tribune, reporting that 87 percent of readers expected a guilty verdict, accidentally found its way into the jury room. Deliberations did, at least, stretch on a long time.
Early last week, Laila was attending the second-to-last meeting of her reporting seminar, getting ready to pose for the yearbook class photo, when two cell-phone calls came in rapid succession from her older brother and younger sister. She quickly fired text messages back: “In class. Any news?” Within seconds, her sister replied, “Yes call now.”
Twenty-four hours later, Laila was sitting in court with her entire family—her brothers, sister, and mother on a bench alongside her, and her father several feet ahead of them in the defendant’s chair, the back of his bald head one seat away from Moffitt’s. The judge began with the most serious charge, conspiracy to murder and maim abroad. Bracing herself, Laila grasped the hand of her 15-year-old brother. Her body tensed.
“Not guilty,” came the words.
She began weeping in the instant.
The judge went on to read eight more counts (the jury had deadlocked on nine others), and Laila cried through them all. “I just couldn’t believe my ears,” she said. “He just kept saying ‘Not guilty.’ ”
“It was the happiest I’ve ever been, ” she said.
A few days later, Laila was back in a newly-snowy Manhattan, struggling to finish the final project for her reporting class—a narrative reconstruction of a murder trial—before deadline. On Saturday, she happened to run into the School of Journalism’s dean of students. “Well, it’s been a big week for you, huh? Congratulations,” he said. After she thanked him, he asked her, “Do people here know?”
The strange thing was, after keeping silent for so long, she wasn’t really sure.