I was reading the paper on my tablet one morning last December when an email arrived from an agent in the FBI’s Washington Field Office: “I have a subpoena to serve to you.”
I put down my coffee and thought I perhaps shouldn’t have tweeted that morning to the president that he’s a lying clown. I started listing current and former police chiefs who could vouch for me. But Special Agent Keith Palli explained that subpoenas are just standard court procedure. I had been identified as a witness in the case of a retired foreign service officer named William Patrick Syring who was indicted for making criminal threats.
Ten years ago, after Dr. George Tiller was murdered in his church by an anti-abortion terrorist, I wrote a column titled “Pro-Gay, Pro-Choice,” explaining my support for my sisters’ reproductive freedom. Someone named Pat S. emailed me calling me an abortionist and saying, “The only good abortionist is a dead abortionist.” A columnist expects criticism, but that sounded like a threat. I called a friend at the Metropolitan Police Department, who arranged an interview with the FBI.
Fast forward to December 2018, when I met with Palli and lawyers from DOJ’s Civil Rights Division for witness prep. They opened a witness binder and handed me a printout of my email exchanges with Syring, which the FBI had obtained from his laptop after executing a search warrant on his home.
I smiled as I reviewed my old correspondence, in which I tried to reason with a crackpot. Syring had trouble making distinctions, such as between being pro-choice and performing abortions, between abortion and murder, and between murder and genocide. He did not understand why I considered my personal views irrelevant to a woman’s reproductive decisions, nor why I regarded such decisions as none of the government’s business.
The lawyers asked why I argued with someone who threatened me. I responded that I argue for a living, and I don’t like being threatened.
It did not surprise me to learn that Syring had behaved no more rationally toward the main victim in the case, Dr. James Zogby of the Arab American Institute (AAI). I ended up not being called as a witness at the trial in early May, which was not surprising considering how much less frightening Syring’s threats against me were than those against Zogby and his staff over a longer period.
As DOJ stated in a news release after Syring was convicted, “from 2012 to 2017, Syring sent over 700 emails to AAI employees, culminating in five death threats in 2017.” His threats were based on the employees’ race and national origin and their encouragement of civic engagement by Arab Americans.
Zogby’s father immigrated to America from Lebanon in 1922. Like his parents, Zogby is Catholic. I spoke with him and his wife outside the courtroom after the sentencing hearing on August 15. He described times when he picked his daughter up from school, and she looked at him and said: “He wrote to you again, didn’t he?”
To terrify a man, his family, and his staff with the possibility that on any given day your threats may escalate into violence, including death, is intolerable. U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss sentenced Syring to five years, of which he has already served six months. He is barred from Internet access. Prosecutors sought a sentence considerably longer.
This all happens within a wider context. Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller is back in the news for his restrictionist policymaking on immigration. His anti-migrant polemics, his hypocritical insistence that immigrants already be English speakers (his own great-grandmother spoke only Yiddish), and his longstanding ties to white supremacists reveal someone at odds with the enriching diversity out of which America is irrevocably forged.
I attended the sentencing hearing to show solidarity with Dr. Zogby, who has demonstrated fortitude and grace as a voice for Arab Americans while being so much greater a target for bigots like Syring than I; and to show my respect for the public servants at FBI and Justice, whose example in upholding American freedoms at a time when they are under siege should inspire us all.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2019 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.