Tin Soldiers and Nixon (Still) Coming

Arrest of Vietnam protester Howard Mechanic is just another war crime

It has been nearly 27 years since American troops were withdrawn from the shameful Vietnam War.

It has been more than 25 years since President Gerald Ford granted conditional clemency to most of those who evaded the Vietnam-era draft, including many who at the time were fugitives from the law.

It has been more than 23 years since President Jimmy Carter went a vital step further and granted unconditional clemency to all draft-evaders, including 4,500 who at the time were still wanted by authorities for their resistance to conscription.

It has been five days since federal authorities re-seized an American political prisoner from the Vietnam War. And they're not letting him go.

His name is Howard Mechanic, and, incredibly, he sits in federal prison in the year 2000 for his part -- throwing a firecracker -- in a 1970 anti-war demonstration at Washington University at which not a soul was injured.

Mechanic and thousands of other students were demonstrating outside the Air Force ROTC building on campus, which some students had set ablaze as they vented their outrage at the killing of four Kent State University students -- less than a day before -- by National Guardsmen. Mechanic was not charged with arson but was convicted on charges that he threw a cherry bomb at a firefighter (which he still denies doing).

Actually, the scene at Washington University paled in comparison to many larger protests around the nation, but, as was the policy in Richard Nixon's Amerika (ah, nostalgia), authorities sought to make examples of whatever perpetrators they could nab. They got Mechanic.

Thus he received an unconscionable five-year sentence -- remember, this was for throwing a cherry bomb that injured no one -- and on the day in 1972 that his appeal was denied by the U.S. Court of Appeals, he skipped out on his bail and became a federal fugitive.

In a tale ripe for the silver screen, Mechanic changed his identity to "Gary Tredway"; came up with a new Social Security card; moved to Scottsdale, Ariz.; got married; became a father; got a real job; became successful in the real-estate business; devoted himself to a flurry of charitable and civic endeavors; and got involved in an array of causes ranging from campaign-finance reform to environmentalism.

He got tripped up, at the age of 51, when his candidacy for the Scottsdale City Council engendered press inquiries that ultimately unraveled some of the core lies he had lived to protect his secret identity. As Tredway, Mechanic admitted publicly he was hiding something from the deep dark past, and crack federal agents -- strutting their stuff as proudly as Barney Fife -- at last seized their man.

They really ought to let him go. Right away.

This "fugitive from the law" the feds are so proudly incarcerating is an unarmed 51-year-old tree-hugger who appears to have harmed absolutely no one during his odyssey from "justice." The only crime they can even attempt to hang on him is falsifying a Social Security card, for crying out loud.

With the exception of Mechanic himself, no one should want this 28-year episode to go away more than the feds themselves, who didn't exactly distinguish themselves with brilliant detective work by getting outsmarted all these years by some earthy guy who battled for such subversive causes as herbal medicine, clean elections and the environment. What's the message to other fugitives here?

"Watch out, pal. We always get our earthy guy -- at least, if you give us a few decades and some hints in the newspaper."

Just let him go. We let all the draft-resisters go who fled from authorities and even scooted off to Canada to avoid their legal responsibility to serve in their nation's armed forces.

And it's not like he killed somebody, or even caused a minor injury. He threw a cherry bomb at an angry demonstration in a tortured time just hours after four of his fellow college students were -- in his view and many others (mine included) -- murdered by their own government while trying to restore it to its senses.

Five years for a first offender for that? No wonder there's already a Web site on his behalf, thrown up by moderate Common Cause (an organization with whom "Gary Tredway" apparently sparred). There, at www.arizonatimes.com/ mechanic.htm, you can read about the sort of person who is now warehoused at taxpayer expense for the sole purpose of showing what happens when you mess with the Man (ah, more nostalgia).

It's not a varnished, glowing tribute -- the introduction describes Mechanic as "cantankerous, to put it mildly" -- but there seems no doubt that this "fugitive" has gone on to live an exemplary life. Some of his credits listed on the site:

· He made frequent donations to the Community Housing Partnership in Phoenix, giving furniture to near-homeless and formerly homeless families. He also gave the agency computers and other office equipment.

· He donated more than 1,000 books on herbal medicine to the small Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine, now in Tempe, Ariz., providing "one of the largest contributions the college library received," its director says.

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