Editorial: Al-Arian Ads Overshadow Race (10/16)St. Petersburg Times
October 16, 2004
Link: Click hereAs the list of challenges facing Florida grows longer - from hurricane recovery to funding for education and environmental issues - it is disappointing that the two candidates for the state's open U.S. Senate seat are fixated on Sami Al-Arian.
The latest installment in this unseemly distortion game is Republican Mel Martinez's new ad accusing Democrat Betty Castor of allowing Al-Arian and his associates to develop a terrorist "cell" at the University of South Florida during her tenure as president.
Martinez's ad is in response to an equally cheap-shot ad by Castor alleging that Martinez permitted Al-Arian to campaign with President Bush in 2000. These attacks and counterattacks over connections to the former USF professor risk drowning out a serious debate on issues that are more important to the lives of Floridians.
Martinez has said that, as one of nine co-chairs of Bush's Florida campaign, he had no control over a spontaneous photo of Al-Arian posing with President and Laura Bush at the Strawberry Festival in 2000 while Bush was reaching out to Muslim voters. He also complained that Castor's ad superimposes two photos to make it look as if he has met Al-Arian, though he says he hasn't.
Castor, who served at USF in the mid 1990s, when Al-Arian first faced allegations of terrorist ties, placed Al-Arian on paid leave while federal officials investigated him. In a pre-9/11 world, with limited information from law enforcement, Castor has said that was the best she could do.
But that hasn't stopped Martinez supporters from trying to smear Castor, with a recent e-mail from his Seminole County campaign chairman telling volunteers "you and I are the front line on the war on terror, because if Betty Castor succeeds, we lose that war."
Such fearmongering trades on emotional reactions that have little to do with facts. Even worse, both candidates' attempts to use the Al-Arian case as a political club presupposes that the indicted former USF professor is guilty of terrorism, though he has not been convicted of a crime. Until the government proves Al-Arian's ties to terrorism in a court of law, treating him as a criminal undermines the principle of presumed innocence.
It's past time for both Castor and Martinez to stop trying to exploit the Al-Arian case for political gain and focus on more important issues. Terrorism is a serious issue, but you wouldn't know it from watching the Castor and Martinez ads.