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What's breathing down your neck
The Guide, March 2005, on the Shanley & Lynne Stewart verdicts
People unfortunate enough to end up in court in Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany found that they were guilty of whatever the prosecutor charged, laws and facts be damned. The separate convictions of two elderly radicals a few days apart last month show how far hysterias over sex and terrorism are sliding US jurisprudence in that totalitarian direction.
On their face, the cases may seem apples and elephants. On February 10th, a Manhattan jury found 65-year-old attorney Lynne Stewart and two associates guilty of federal terrorism charges carrying a 30-year sentence. Her central crime? Phoning a reporter from Reuters news service in Cairo with a statement about her client.
Words and words alone were also grounds for the conviction on rape charges, three days earlier, by a jury in Cambridge, Mass., of 74-year-old Father Paul Shanley. Accuser Paul Busa, a 27-year-old suburban Boston firefighter, had testified that Shanley assaulted him continually over a period of six years starting in the early 80s. But no witnesses could be found attesting that Shanley, pastor at the time, repeatedly removed Busa from catechism class at Newton's St. Jean the Evangelist. Nor were there any medical indications of the repeated "oral and anal rape" Busa alleged, starting when he was six.
Indeed, accuser number-one, Greg Ford, who did not testify, says he completely forgot about the attacks until January 2002, when his memory was triggered by reading a lengthy account about Shanley in the Boston Globe. The piece focused on a gay relationship a 20-year-old man had begun with Shanley, and was filled with innuendo about how a gay priest who worked with teenagers had to be a sexual menace.
Busa started sprout supposed memories of abuse when his girlfriend called about ten days later and announced that Greg Ford was suing the archdiocese. Busa's memories started "flooding" back immediately, and were helped along by a 4am call to Ford. The next day Busa, then a military cop, requested a note from an Air Force shrink to go back to Massachusetts from Colorado, where he was stationed, to consult a personal injury lawyer. Busa -- along with Ford and two other accusers from St. Jean, who also had suddenly "recovered" conflicting memories but refused to testify at trial -- are said to have walked away with more than $1.2 million.
Shanley was sentenced to 12-15 years in prison, effectively a life sentence, with prosecutor Lynn Rooney vowing to have the formerly-priest civilly committed were he ever to face release.
Both Stewart and Shanley had been public figures throughout their careers -- Stewart through her work defending sometimes violent political radicals, including members of the Black Panthers and Weather Underground. She was court-appointed attorney of radical Muslim cleric Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was convicted in 1995 of conspiracy to commit bombings in New York. Stewart continued to represent Abdel-Rahman, in an effort to improve prison conditions for Abdel-Rahman, who is blind and diabetic.
In order to continue in her role, she had to agree to prison rules limiting his communication with her to matters of "legal representation," and could not be in contact with anyone else, except his wife. Stewart insisted that her communication with Reuters -- in which Rahman called for an end to a cease-fire maintained by the terroristic, Egypt-based Islamic Group -- was a legitimate part of her work in controlling her client's public profile. (The cease-fire was, in any case, maintained.)
Shanley, too, was well-known. In Boston in the 1970s he was a long-haired "street priest," putting his liberation-theology into action working with homeless youth, and outspoken in his support of gay Catholics. He quarreled with the church on priestly celibacy, and eventually openly discussed relationships he had with men and women. And -- as repeated endlessly during his prosecution -- he spoke at a 1978 Boston conference on gay men and the age-of-consent.
Every crime's capital
At a time when terrorism and sex-crime are American obsessions, the Stewart and Shanley cases dramatically expand the scope of what each encompasses. Stewart's conviction establishes that mere speech can be "terrorism," even speech uttered by an attorney in the course of representing her client, and even where no act of violence followed from the words. Moreover, the evidence against Stewart-- based on tapes that US authorities secretly made of her supposedly private consultations with Abdel-Rahman-- shows that attorney-client privilege in America is a thing of the past.
The Shanley conviction, which received uncritical worldwide coverage despite its shaky grounds, breathes new life into what had been the fading reputation of "traumatic amnesia": the claim, for which there is no scientific evidence, that people respond to trauma by wiping the memory from awareness, burying it in some unconscious recess, where it lies in wait for something to trigger a resurfacing. On the absence of any indication that traumatic amnesia exists, some jurisdictions have banned such claims from court. But in Massachusetts, a bellwether state for sex law, recovered memory now sits on a pedestal.
Words are powerful, but they are distinct from actions. Yet Stewart's words to Reuters constituted "terrorism," the government declared. Uttering them proved her a terrorist. As well, according to the advocates of traumatic amnesia, the "recovery" of a shocking memory -- somehow always about sexual violation, and never about, say, having survived a plane crash or Auschwitz -- constitutes proof sufficient to convict.
Past down the memory hole
It's no accident that Stewart and Shanley were public figures tied to the 60s and 70s -- decades whose accomplishments, from abortion-rights to porn, the right-wing faction now in power aims to undo. Breathtakingly, Bush even seeks to rewrite the social contract laid down in the 1930s -- the weaving of an economic safety-net that helped block socialism in America and guaranteed the prosperity that grounded the cultural flowering of the 60s.
But reaching back even further, the Bushites seek to undo the basic tenet of the West's liberal order, which emerged with such violence and tumult out of the Middle Ages. Wresting a separate economic sphere, distinct nations, and freedom of conscience from the total domain of, ironically, the Catholic Church, was a unique -- and bloody -- European accomplishment.
This proved the basis of the West's extraordinary dynamism. At the end there was a consensus: that a decent society allows a mosaic of distinct sites of power. Those distinctions are pronounced especially in America, whose founders keenly understood the historical drift.
The gaps echo staccato-like throughout the political order: from the separation of executive from judiciary from legislative branches, to the presumption of innocence of the accused, to the right of religious communities to govern themselves (even on affairs of desire), to the ability of lawyers to fight for their clients without being stained by their possible crimes.
The new regime of Sex-Terror short-circuits all those separations, closes all those gaps -- not even as relatively benignly as traditional theocracy, but with the crazy chaotic energy of 20th century totalitarianism. A judicial system that embraces such theologies as "Speech = Terrorism" and "Recovered Memory" [*] has given up using courts to weigh evidence, and instead uses them as theaters for dramas whose denouements are preordained.
It was a lesson taught again and again in the courtrooms of Stalin and Hitler, and it was taught last month to Lynn Stewart and Paul Shanley. On the basis of words with significance only assigned by the state, a notable American priest and lawyer will be sent off probably to die in prison.
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