Back in May, a jury found Patrick Syring, a former State Department official, guilty of 14 counts of making threats against my life and my staff at the Arab American Institute. This week, a federal judge sentenced Syring to five years in prison to be followed by three years of court-ordered probation.
This was Syring’s second conviction. He had been found guilty of the same crimes against me and my staff in 2008 and served over a year in prison. After his release and a period of probation, he began once again to stalk, harass, and threaten me and my office. He accused me of horrible crimes – organizing dozens of terrorist attacks around the world. He referred to me as a “genocidal, anti-Semitic, homophobic murderer,” in addition to threatening me with death by saying that “The only good Arab is a dead Arab” and America would only be free of terror when it was “cleansed of James Zogby” and “all Arab Americans.”
Although Syring’s threats were communicated directly to me, he made a practice of copying other members of my staff and even our young interns. In all, we received over 700 such emails from Syring and because of their frequency and the hate-filled threats they contained, they were a cause of real concern.
Each day, when I entered my office I could tell on the faces of my staff and interns whether or not Syring had struck again. Especially after a terrorist attack either in the US or internationally, his language became so extreme that we had to call local police for protection and report the threats to the FBI. The support they provided us was so appreciated. For a time, two agents accompanied me to public events. The Department of Homeland Security gave us an assessment of measures we should take to make our building and office more secure. And because we knew who had sent the threats, they often visited Syring to warn him that there would be consequences to his behavior.
His obsession with me and his hatred of Arab Americans was so great, that he continued until the Department of Justice finally convened a Grand Jury and indicted him for his crimes. Nothing, however, stopped him.
It was this obsession and hatred that concerned us most precisely because we never knew when he might act on his threats of violence. Our concern was heightened by his apparent willingness to continue despite having already been punished for the same crime and having been repeatedly warned by law enforcement to stop what he was doing.
So now the sentence has been given. Syring will be in a federal prison until 2024. At that time, he will begin three years in court-ordered probation, undergoing psychiatric evaluation, and be required to avoid any contact or communication with me or any current of former staff member of the Institute.
It gives me no pleasure to see this man going to jail for a long period, but it does provide us all with a sense of enormous relief. I’ve been threatened before. My wife, my children, and I have received death threats for the past 50 years – owing to my advocacy for Palestinian rights and the rights of the Arab American community. My office was fire-bombed and an Arab American colleague, whom I hired, was murdered. Two individuals who, in the past, made death threats against me and my children were convicted and sentenced to prison terms. But this case was different.
In the first place, Syring had tormented us for over a decade. He literally became a part of our daily lives. My wife had his picture handy and if a car was parked outside of our house, she would check to see if he was the driver. My staff were instructed to alter their behaviors – so as not to take the same route to and from the office. And some even had to receive counseling. It was especially troubling to see the reactions of young interns when they would be the unlucky recipients of a Syring email. They had come to have a Washington work experience, not to be threatened or have their ethnicity maligned.
This is also different because for more than two decades Syring had been a State Department official who had served two tours in Lebanon. During the 2008 proceedings, I learned that on more than one occasion he had been rebuked by the DOS for displays of anti-Arab behavior. I was shocked that instead of taking action they simply moved him to another posting. They even allowed him to remain in the federal service after he was indicted for his first threats against me – some of which he made from his State Department phone or his State Department computer. At that time, I asked DOS officials, “What if a foreign service officer had threatened a Jewish American leader and made repeated anti-Semitic comments against him and called for genocide against the Jewish community – what would the reaction have been?”
That troubled me then and still troubles me now. And while there has been some press coverage of the case, I am compelled to ask, “What kind of press treatment would have been given if a former government official delivered death threats to a Jewish American leader accompanied by the statement ‘the only good Jew is a dead Jew?'” Why are Arab Americans seen in a lesser light? And why are threats against us less worthy of evoking outrage?
With Syring going to jail for the next five years, my staff and I feel a degree of relief. It won’t give us back the years we lived in fear, but we know that at least for the foreseeable future our daily lives won’t be turned upside down by cruel death threats from this man. We are thankful for that. We are also thankful for the strong support and protection we were given by the Civil Rights attorneys at the DOJ and law enforcement agencies and for the friendship and support we received from allies and friends.
With this sad chapter behind us, we will now continue our advocacy work. We will fight against hate crimes and demand that hate crimes against Arab Americans be given the same recognition as those against other vulnerable communities. We will continue our work empowering Arab Americans through voter registration, involvement in the political process without fear of discrimination or political exclusion. And we will continue to advocate for an inclusive immigration policy, protection for vulnerable refugees and asylees, and a foreign policy that promotes human rights and justice for all – including the long-suffering Palestinian people. Some may not like what we advocate and may even threaten us because of our advocacy – but we will persist because we know that it is our duty, as Americans, to continue to fight for what we know is right.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Arab American Institute. The Arab American Institute is a non-profit, nonpartisan national leadership organization that does not endorse candidates.