There have been several high-profile arrests of wannabe jihadis who allegedly intended to fight with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, including three New York City residents last week, charged with providing "material support and resources ... to a foreign terrorist organization." They each face up to 15 years in prison.
Over the last year the United States has intercepted and arrested at least 15 young Muslims for wanting to join ISIS.
If I went to Syria to join ISIS, I could be arrested and charged with felonies that carry long prison sentences.
As citizens of a supposedly free country, Americans ought to be able to travel anywhere on the planet, and fight for any army we please, as long as that force is not at war against the United States. This, by the way, has been American law for the last 120 years.
Neither ISIS nor the United States have declared war against one another. (Since the U.S. does not recognize ISIS as a nation-state, they wouldn't be able to do so.) Anyway, ISIS is more of a frenemy: The Obama administration was still funneling money, weapons and trainers to the insurgent factions that metastasized into the Islamic State in their war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad well into 2014. We still want them to beat Assad ... or do we?
The Center for Constitutional Rights complains that the "material support" statute governing these prosecutions is overly broad because along with the USA Patriot Act it criminalizes "almost any kind of support for blacklisted groups, including humanitarian aid, training, expert advice, 'services' in almost any form, and political advocacy." It's downright absurd when the blacklisted "terrorist group" in question was a U.S. ally until last summer.
It ought to go without saying that I have no sympathy for ISIS. Their ideology is idiotic, medieval and repugnant. Among numerous other atrocities, they kidnap, torture and execute war correspondents — my colleagues. Last week's video of ISIS fighters destroying archeological treasures at the museum in Mosul, Iraq had me shouting "barbarians!" at my screen. They're disgusting.
But I am also disgusted by the U.S. government's imperialistic campaign to trample the sovereignty of other nations in their attempt to dominate the entire world. Not only does the U.S. invade other nations without just cause, it routinely violates countries' airspace with drones, airstrikes and assassination raids. The U.S. arrests non-U.S. persons for acts committed outside the U.S., kidnaps them, prosecutes and jails them in the U.S.
If you want to join the French Foreign Legion or the Australian Coast Guard or the Taliban or ISIS, it's your stupid business — unless, as I said above, a formal state of war exists between them and the United States (which would be treason, punishable by death).
There is a long history of Americans traveling abroad to fight in foreign armies. American volunteers in the Abraham Lincoln Brigades defended the Republican government against Franco's fascists in the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s. In the 1980s, thousands of American internationalistas fought on the Sandinista side in Nicaragua against American-backed right-wing death squads. Because they fought for left-of-center causes, they were accused of ideological subversion by reactionary government officials — but, thanks to an 1896 court ruling, they weren't prosecuted.
Over 1,000 Americans serve in the Israeli Defense Forces.
As with so many other basic legal precepts, your right to serve in a foreign army has been eroded since 9/11, marked by the prosecution imprisonment of "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh. Lindh joined the Taliban in 2000 and was captured by U.S. forces during the fall 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. He received a whopping 20 years in federal prison for "providing services" to the Taliban and "carrying an explosive" (which, as a soldier in a war zone, is hardly unusual).
At the time I was one of the few pubic figures — perhaps the only one — who criticized the Bush administration's treatment of Lindh, who was brutally tortured by American troops. Lindh, I pointed out, joined the Taliban before 9/11. Even after 9/11, the U.S. never declared war against Afghanistan — so he should have been repatriated without punishment.
Prosecutions under the "material support" statute escalated following the media's passive acceptance of the lengthy prison sentence for Lindh.
Locking people in prison for the crime of youthful idealism/naivete is a perversion of law and morality. They are not a threat to the U.S.
Young men and women who successfully make it into Syria and join ISIS shoot at Syrians and Iraqis. The only Americans they might endanger are U.S. occupation troops assisting collaborationist Iraqis — who are there illegally, in an undeclared war. What we think of ISIS is irrelevant; many countries are ruled by vile Sdespots.
From a practical standpoint in this war for hearts of minds, throwing kids who have never fired a shot into federal penitentiaries for ridiculously long prison terms confirms the narrative that the West is at war not with Islamic extremism, but with Islam itself.
As an American, I hate to see us lose another right.
Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist for The Los Angeles Times, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book "After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan." Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.