The Al Qaeda-Harmonica Link

Flickr/<a href="" target="_blank">stevendepolo</a> (Creative Commons)

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on a pair of cases that challenge the existing federal ban on providing “material support” to terroristson account of the fact that “material support,” as you might expect, can be taken mean almost anything. Including, it turns out, teaching a terrorist to play the blues. Let’s check the transcript (pdf):

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Under the definition of this statute, teaching these members to play the harmonica would be unlawful. You are teachingtraining them in a lawfulin a specialized activity. So how do wethere has to be something more than merely a congressional finding that any training is bad. [emphasis mine]

Solicitor General Elena Kagan, quick on her feet, told Sotomayor that such a scenario was unlikely. Terrorists, as anyone with even an elementary education knows, hate bluegrass: “Now you say well, maybe training aplaying a harmonica is a specialized activity. I think the first thing I would say is there are not a whole lot of people going around trying to teach Al Qaeda how to play harmonicas.”

But Justice Antonin Scalia, for one, was unconvinced: “Well,” he retorted, “Hamid Hatah [note: I think he means Mohammed Atta] and his harmonica quartet might tour the country and make a lot of money. Right?” 

Merlin’s pants! The terrorists really are everywhere. The harmonica quartet may be an odd tangent to a terror case, but it does sound like a great idea for a movie: A down-on-his-luck blues musician (I’m thinking Sam Elliott), looking to revive his own career, forges an unlikely friendship with a band of aspiring Islamic extremists masquerading as music students. In the end, forced to choose between the attack they’ve secretly been plotting and their big gig, the terrorists choose musicand friendshipover terror. Or something.

Get on it, Coen brothers.


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  • Tim Murphy

    Tim Murphy is a senior reporter at Mother Jones. Reach him at