Phi Beta Cons

Lynne Stewart, Her Sheik, and “The Demonized Other”

Self-styled civil-rights lawyer Stewart has received an exceptionally light jail sentence after being found guilty of providing material support to terrorists by smuggling out messages from her imprisoned client–blind Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the suspected leader of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing–to his followers, thus in effect encouraging terrorist attacks. 
Stewart’s excuse for what the judge in the case, John Koeltl, called “extraordinarily severe criminal conduct” with “potentially lethal consequences” was that to her, “the sheik was part of the demonized other…[a] part of a continuum” with various other violent extremists she had defended in the past, including members of the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers.”
The widespread academic usage of the term “the Other” is rooted in the view that the colonialist-imperialist Euro-American Man had to create, and subject to diabolical persecution, an Other against which to define himself. The underlying assumption is that the Euro-American Man is–uniquely–responsible for all the heinous acts against humanity under the sun. Hugh Fitzgerald (in the context of demonstrating “the real victimhood of Jews” at the hands of Europeans, as opposed to an equivalent, “false victimhood” of Arabs claimed by some scholars) sardonically writes that He (the Euro-American Man) has been portrayed as “the Ur-villain.”  
By invoking this concept –claiming the status of Other for the blind sheik–Stewart  insinuates that he (like the violent radicals she defended earlier in her career) is the victim of unjust persecution and only an imaginary threat; in a bid for sympathy–in the end successful, given her shockingly lenient punishment–she is also deftly positioning herself as an admirable and compassionate defender of those who have been victimized.
In placing Abdel-Rahman under the protective mantle of Otherness, Stewart deflected attention from the inconvenient fact that he is a real and deadly enemy, a bona fide terrorist in time of war: He is serving a life sentence for plotting to blow up New York City landmarks, and the federal government has seen fit to put severe restrictions on his communications to prevent him from plotting new attacks from inside his prison cell.
What sleight of hand! What an operator Stewart is! Not only did she maneuver to dodge serious jail time for deeds that could have resulted in the deaths of countless innocents, she also managed to cast a real demon in the forgiving glow of Otherness.


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