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Gary McKinnon: A Disabled, Frightened Asperger's Sufferer and the Fate of UK-US Relations

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By Anthony Painter

Asperger's Syndrome is characterized in part by obsessive and compulsive behavior and the failure of the sufferer to empathize with others' emotions, including distress. Much has been written about Gary McKinnon -- the UFO-fanatical British hacker who allegedly caused $500,000 worth of damage to Pentagon and NASA computer systems and caused a major breach of security -- and to his Asperger's. But you have to wonder whether he is the most acute case in this whole sorry tale.

Obsessive and compulsive behavior? An absence of empathy? It sounds like the British and American governments are the ones with the far more serious case of Asperger's than Mr McKinnon.

As the doctor who diagnosed him, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, has said: "We should be thinking about this [the hacking] as the activity of somebody with a disability rather than a criminal activity."

Between the two of them, the British and US governments have got into a complete muddle. At the source of the issue, is the US-UK Extradition Treaty 2003. It was designed in the aftermath of 9/11 to increase the ability of each country to extradite those suspected of terrorism.

Now it is being used to extradite a frightened and disabled man to stand trial and face the prospect of more than sixty years of incarceration in a high security facility for a series of breaches of the US Atomic Energy Act of 1954.

What Gary McKinnon did was absolutely and unconditionally wrong. He created security risks and damaged property. He should stand trial. But why insist that he does so in the US where removal from the social support structure vital for someone suffering from Asperger's Syndrome risks a complete mental breakdown?

The consequences for him personally are catastrophic. They will not be quite as severe for US-UK relations. However, the US should be under no illusions about the degree of anger that there is towards it as a result of insisting on this cruel extradition.

A major 'Free Gary' campaign is funneling public outrage and they are now campaigning for the Obama administration to withdraw the extradition request. The original aim was to get the British government to try the McKinnon case in the UK but following yesterday's decision by the High Court the chances of that happening are becoming more remote.

Rightly or wrongly, the British government feels hamstrung by the extradition treaty. It is playing a dangerous game, as public support for Gary McKinnon begins to explode in a situation reminiscent of the recent refusal -- and then u-turn -- of the government to grant British citizenship to Gurkha soldiers who fought for the British army. Lord Carlile, who is the independent reviewer of all UK anti-terrorism laws, recently described the possible extradition as "cruel." He has called for the Home Secretary to determine that Mr McKinnon be tried in the UK -- as he could be under the Computer Misuse Act of 1990.

The 'Free Gary' campaign is having an impact on the image of the United States in the UK and is gathering significant momentum. Forty Members of Parliament from across the political spectrum have written to President Obama asking for the extradition request to be withdrawn. The leaders of the two opposition parties, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, have lent their support to the campaign. The Prime Minister's wife, Sarah Brown, has expressed her personal sympathy for the mother of Gary McKinnon, Janis Sharp.

Newspapers from the full span of the political spectrum -- from the Guardian on the left to the Daily Mail on the right -- are behind the campaign. Stars of stage and screen are weighing in too. Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour as well as Bob Geldof, and Chrissie Hynde, have released a track in support of Gary McKinnon to raise money for autism charities. Sting, Peter Gabriel and Trudie Styler have been vocal in their support. Liberty, the British equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, are full-square behind the campaign, describing Britain's extradition arrangements as a "disgrace."

Why should any of this concern the Obama administration? The election of Barack Obama reset popular opinion of the United States here as it has done elsewhere. Is it really worth undoing all that good work to try this disabled and desperate man? What will be gained?

In comments revealing his concept of law, President Obama described the qualities that he was looking for in a Supreme Court Justice on the occasion of the resignation of Justice David H. Souter:

"I will seek someone who understands that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book. It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives: whether they can make a living and care for their families; whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation."

"I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes."

Surely, that compassion, that pragmatism and that understanding of the consequences of legal decisions as opposed to dry legalism are exactly what are required in the case of Gary McKinnon? Between them, surely the British government and the Obama administration can reverse this injustice? He would be tried here, but the Obama Administration must first reverse the extradition request so that everyone can save face. The fate of a highly irresponsible but suffering man is at stake. And so is how the UK views the Obama Administration and whether it is seen as truly different or more of the same.

Anthony Painter is author of Barack Obama: the movement for change and a columnist for LabourList. Follow Anthony on Twitter at twitter.com/anthonypainter