Debra J. Saunders

 The New York Times' Sunday profile of accused dirty-bomb terrorist Jose Padilla reports that, at age 14, Padilla was involved in a fateful armed robbery. Padilla's accomplice fatally stabbed a Mexican immigrant, and Padilla kicked victim Elio Evangelista in the head "because he felt like it," according to records.

 At age 20, Padilla brandished a gun in a fit of road rage. Authorities then charged him with battery against a jail guard. Padilla repented and pleaded guilty. He found Jesus.

 Then, he found Mohammed. He got out of jail and found work. He married. In 1998, Padilla went to Egypt to get closer to Islam and teach English. He became engaged to 19-year-old Shamia'a. His American wife learned of the betrothal through an Egyptian American friend.

 After her pleading failed, Padilla's wife dutifully divorced him. Padilla married Shamia'a and then left his pregnant wife in Egypt while he went to Yemen, he said, to teach English. As she stayed behind and bore another child, Padilla traveled through the Middle East, to Pakistan and then to Switzerland. In 2002, Padilla was arrested in Chicago after senior al Qaeda official Abu Zubaydah fingered him for his involvement in an alleged dirty-bomb plot.

 So here's the paragraph in the story by Times reporter Deborah Sontag that truly baffles me: Padilla's "journey covered significant territory, geographically, emotionally and spiritually, and family and friends paint a vivid picture of Jose Padilla. If he lived a double life, they were unaware of it. And the American government has said so little beyond its initial, startling allegations about Mr. Padilla that it is difficult to reconcile the two portrayals -- the man his relatives thought they knew and the man the government calls an enemy of his homeland."

 What's difficult to reconcile? Where is the good Jose Padilla that is supposed to balance the bad? When he was young, Padilla was a thug. After he found God as an adult, he was a heel. Whether he's guilty of plotting to set off a dirty bomb, I don't know, but Padilla's biography certainly raises questions that beg for answers.

 Sontag repeats Shamia'a's protestations that her husband could not have misled her about what he was doing in Yemen. Then, Sontag lists information that completely undercuts the protestations. For example, Padilla must have been paid very well for an English teacher to have traveled as extensively as he did. Yet Muhammed Javed, the Florida man who helped convert Padilla to Islam, told The New York Times that when Padilla told him he was going to Egypt to teach English, he said, "I was baffled, thinking, 'You yourself don't speak proper English.'"

 While the story suggests that Padilla's mother, Estela Ortega Lebron, doesn't believe her son could have been involved in the alleged dirty-bomb plot, Mom's reported complaints focus on how the FBI treated her and the fact that her son has yet to be tried.

 The best part of the package, however, was the front-page photo of Padilla's wife -- Shamia'a -- clutching a photo of her husband. The bride is shrouded under so much covering -- veils and gloves -- that readers see but a human form in black, with a flesh-colored slit punctured with two eyes.

 I have to ask: If you wanted to convince Americans that your husband isn't a radical Islamic terrorist, would you pose for The New York Times so heavily veiled that your own mother wouldn't recognize you?

 The story addresses the legal question of the U.S. government holding Padilla indefinitely without charging him with a specific crime.

 On the one hand, after two years, the government should be able to present a case to the courts and grant Padilla a chance to defend himself.

 On the other hand, authorities argue that only the certainty of severe punishment will push Padilla to trade information for a break in his sentence.

 They also don't want to risk bringing Abu Zubaydah into a courtroom.

 As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments against holding Padilla, critics like to dismiss his jailers as law-and-order fanatics. They've turned U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft into such a caricature -- read: right-wing nut -- that they can't imagine Ashcroft actually might want to save innocent people's lives.

 In their world, Ashcroft is dangerous, but Padilla is not.

 It's not just that they've forgotten the recent barrage of criticism that the Bush administration was negligent in failing to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.

 It's as if they've forgotten what happened on Sept. 11.


Debra J. Saunders


 
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