DENVER — Nobody's come as far as James Yee to be a delegate to this Democratic National Convention.
Five years ago, Yee, an Army chaplain of Muslim faith, was shackled and tossed into solitary confinement for 76 days because the U.S. government felt — wrongly — that he was a terrorist sympathizer and spy.
Now the Olympia man is here, ready to cast his vote as part of the Washington state contingent for Barack Obama.
His story is a useful reminder, he says, of the danger of America chucking aside civil liberties.
But his presence at the convention, which opens today, is also a test of sorts. Will the Democrats allow Muslims to be out and proud for Obama? Even one who was once under a cloud of treason, vilified as a traitor at the time by some leading Democratic politicians?
How far have we come since 9/11, anyway?
"There is some worry that I might be a lightning rod," Yee said Sunday. " 'Accused terrorist spy is national delegate for Obama,' " he intoned, imagining how Fox News might broadcast his story.
Yee, formerly a chaplain at Fort Lewis, is something of a celebrity at the convention. Fox, PBS, The Washington Post all have called. It's because of what happened to him at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, back when America was gripped in a war-on-terror fever.
Yee was no radical. A West Point grad, he was deeply committed to both his Muslim faith and the military — "serving both God and country," he says. He voted for George W. Bush in 2000.
Then he was sent to Gitmo in the fall of 2002, to minister to prisoners and be an unofficial Muslim spokesman for the U.S. military.
By the spring of 2003, though, he was objecting to the treatment of detainees and the "anti-Muslim hostility" that he says pervaded the place. He felt it came down from the top — from the "you're either with us or against us" doctrine that he now describes as "a terrorist mentality."
Some intelligence officers suspected Yee of conspiring with the enemy, and he was arrested that September.
Spying, espionage, mutiny and sedition — all were alleged by the government. Infamously, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. — whom Yee will probably meet at this convention — said Yee's arrest was proof that al-Qaida had infiltrated the U.S. military.
"Basically, they said I was a traitor," Yee says.
The case fell apart almost immediately. Eventually all charges were dropped, and in 2005 he quit the Army with an honorable discharge.
But along the way he got treated as an enemy combatant by his own country. He was forced to wear blackened goggles and earmuffs. Today, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and gets psychiatric treatment at a hospital in Tacoma.
He is blunt about why it all happened.
"Some of it is because I challenged the system at Guantánamo," he said, "but most of it was because I am Muslim."
So now, in 2008, does he feel welcome in American politics?
It is not far from Yee's mind that the Obama campaign in the spring asked two women wearing Muslim head scarves to move so they wouldn't appear in the TV shots of the crowd behind him.
But Yee says he got active in politics after quitting the Army because he feels Muslims must "speak up, volunteer and engage," or continue to be marginalized.
"I can see why Muslims wanted to go underground after 9/11," Yee said. "But I have found that if you speak up in politics you can have a positive influence."
As for Obama, Yee chalks up the head-scarf controversy to zealous campaign aides. Obama, a Christian, has been trying to dispel rumors that he's Muslim without appearing to run from Muslims in the process.
Yee said Obama has long ties to Muslim and Arab communities in Illinois and has been "by far the strongest advocate for following the Geneva Conventions, for habeas corpus, for following the Constitution for everyone and for reaching out to all faiths."
When he says this, we are sitting outside what's billed as the first-ever "interfaith" event for a Democratic convention. We listen as Christians, Jews, Buddhists and, yes, Muslims, openly profess their faiths.
Then there's a reading from the Quran, the same book Yee says he saw desecrated, as a form of psychic abuse, at Guantánamo. It's a passage about how the true nature of righteousness is more about compassion than "whether you turn your face towards East or West."
Yee taps the passage.
"That they'll now read from the Quran at a national political convention — that shows we have come a long way in this country," he says.
"That I'm here — that shows it, too."
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