What is the issue the Palm Beach Post calls "almost the only topic" and the one that is "playing a pivotal" role in Florida's battle for the American Senate? It's not health care, taxes, education, the economy, or even Iraq. Rather, the two principal candidates are engaged in a ferocious argument over Sami Al-Arian, an accused Islamist terrorist. Their battle teaches lessons for the future.
Mr. Al-Arian, a Palestinian immigrant, was a professor of engineering at the University of South Florida when in 1994, investigative journalist Steven Emerson aired a documentary establishing that, as president of the Islamic Committee for Palestine, Mr. Al-Arian headed the "primary support group in the United States for [Palestinian] Islamic Jihad," a notorious terrorist group.
How did Mr. Al-Arian's employer respond to this news? Betty Castor, then-president of USF and now the Democratic candidate for Senate, neither took steps to fire Mr. Al-Arian nor criticize him. Instead, she ordered a review of his dossier and only in 1996 placed him on non-disciplinary administrative leave with full pay – a form of paid vacation. When the American government failed to indict him by 1998, she reinstated Mr. Al-Arian in his old teaching job and a year later she left USF.
(It was only after passage of the USA PATRIOT act, giving law enforcement access to intelligence information, that Al-Arian was finally in February 2003 indicted and arrested on terrorism charges.)
Mel Martinez, Ms Castor's Republican opponent, argues that Ms Castor provided "weak leadership" in failing to protect her university from Islamic Jihad, that she fussed about academic freedom instead of grappling with a campus terrorist cell by firing the man he calls the "terrorism professor."
Ms Castor replies that union and university rules tied her hands. She then went on the offensive, digging up a picture of George W. Bush campaigning at a strawberry festival in Florida in 2000 – and who should be there, grinning with the future president, but Mr. Al-Arian. Castor's ad charges that "As chair of George Bush's Florida campaign, Martinez allowed suspected terrorist Sami Al-Arian to campaign with Bush, years after Al-Arian was suspended by Betty Castor."
This accusation looks powerful – except that three factual errors undermine it: Martinez was not chair but one of eight honorary co-chairmen; he did not "allow" the photograph to take place but had no knowledge of a spontaneous campaign event; and Ms Castor gave Mr. Al-Arian a long vacation rather than suspend him (which is a disciplinary action).
More broadly, the Martinez campaign rightly points out that the two candidates have hardly equivalent records. "Mel Martinez never allowed Sami Al-Arian to do anything, unlike Betty Castor, who allowed Al-Arian to operate on her campus for six years." Or in Rudy Giuliani's more pungent formulation, Castor "couldn't figure out how to fire an alleged terrorist."
Lou Magill, the chairman of Mr. Martinez's campaign in Seminole County took it over the top in an e-mail to supporters: "You and I are the front line on the war on terror because if Castor succeeds, we lose that war."
Both candidates "are consumed with al-Arian," notes Marc Caputo in the Miami Herald. But there the symmetry stops, for the public so far has penalized Ms Castor and rewarded Mr. Martinez. It recognizes that for Mr. Martinez, Mr. Al-Arian was not an issue while Castor for six long years failed to handle the problem the professor presented.
According to a Mason-Dixon poll, Ms Castor's soft treatment of Mr. Al-Arian ranks as her "chief weakness." A Martinez advisor reports that when asked, "Who do you think is better on terrorism?" voters favor Mr. Martinez 2-1. Mr. Martinez has also enjoyed a 20 percent increase since August of voters who view him favorably; Ms Castor won just a 4 percent increase.
The "all Al-Arian all the time" campaign has several implications:
- As Islamist terrorism grows in menace and capabilities, how American politicians deal with it is becoming more central to their attractiveness as candidates and their stature as leaders.
- The American voter rewards a tough policy toward those suspected of ties to terrorism.
- Both major parties must ignore those activists (Grover Norquist for the Republicans, James Zogby for the Democrats) who argue for courting the Islamist vote.
It is unclear who will win the tight Florida race; it is clear, however, that politicians who coddle terrorists have adopted a losing electoral strategy.
Oct. 19, 2004 update: To read the what I could not fit into this column, see the weblog entry at "Dissing the Debate over Sami Al-Arian."'
Nov. 2, 2004 update: Mel Martinez won the election and will be Florida's new senator.