Just when you think you know somebody, he goes and gets himself detained by the FBI for questioning in connection with alleged ties to the terrorist network of Osama bin Laden.
So, whom do you stand by: your country or an individual who you've known all your life -- but who may not be what he seems to be?
Such is the predicament of the friends and relatives of James Ujaama, a 36-year-old American black Muslim convert also known as James Earnest Thompson and Ahmed Bilal, who was born in Denver, raised in Seattle, and moved to London in 1996 to worship under militant Muslim cleric and al Qaeda recruiter Sheikh Abu Hamza Al-Masri.
Federal authorities have alleged that Ujaama/Thompson/Bilal delivered laptop computers to the Taliban in Afghanistan before the U.S. invasion last fall, and that he possessed documents about poisoning America's water supply (reportedly confiscated from his Denver residence this week). Based on interrogations of Guantanamo Bay detainees, federal agents also believe Ujaama played a role in scouting out a jihad training camp in Bly, Ore.
Ujaama hasn't been charged with anything. He is, of course, innocent until proven guilty of any terrorism-related allegations. But if you are a family member or old acquaintance of such a suspect, you might properly feel alarmed. Angry. And maybe even secretly suspicious of the person you thought you knew so well, but perhaps had deep, unspoken doubts about over the years.
If you are a prominent local black activist or politician, however, you whip out your race card and start making excuses, spreading blame and mouthing off when chastened silence would be the wiser course.
"I don't know everything James Ujaama did when he was in London," said Charlie James, a black community activist in Seattle who heads something called the "Organization of African American Unity." "But I've been knowing (sic) him all his life." Ujaama -- who founded an extremist pro-Muslim Web site after Sept. 11 called "StopAmerica.org" and visited Pakistan several times since the terrorist attacks -- has a "streak of militancy," James acknowledged. But he declared unequivocally that Ujaama is not a terrorist.
Ron Sims, King County, Wash., executive and the highest-ranking African American elected official in the state, echoed the declaration publicly. Of Ujaama and his younger brother, Mustafa, Sims said: "These two gentlemen are community activists, not terrorists." Larry Gossett, a black King County councilman added: "Both of these cats have had a positive, contributing role in the African American community here."
James Ujaama's "biggest problem is that he's so damn inquisitive that he'll go anywhere anyplace anytime. I think that's what got him in trouble," Charlie James naively pontificated. Most of us satisfy our inquisitive impulses by visiting a library, not by hopscotching across hotbeds of al Qaeda activism. But never mind that. Building on this innocent scholar image, James told another reporter that Ujaama simply traveled abroad "to see how other Muslims are living." He's "a curious guy," James said. "He goes out to see the world."
Where did Ujaama, a young, self-employed computer technician of limited means, get the money for all these travels?
Of Ujaama and his brother's visit to the Bly, Ore., site suspected of being a terrorist training camp, Charlie James shrugs. It was simply a recreational "practice shooting" trip, he pooh-poohs.
Practice for what?
The questions refuse to enter James' mind. Instead, he complains that "it's the McCarthy era all over again" and suggests that news coverage of Ujaama's activities is racist. "If he was a white youth doing the same thing, I don't think it would say terrorist. But because he's a Muslim and an African-American, it comes up terrorism." (Hello? Has he not read about Taliban Johnny Walker and Jose Padilla?)
In the name of "African American Unity," the political friends of James Ujaama refuse to believe he is anything other than a benign minority community activist under attack by a biased government. This self-serving love of racial demagoguery is blind, dumb and dangerous.