Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Bombin' Around the Christmas Tree

So we've all heard about the Portland plot by now. Some crazy dude tried to blow up a Christmas tree lighting ceremony. And, of course, being a cynic, my first thought wasn't "thank heaven this plot was stopped," but rather, "this was totally a set-up by the FBI." That, in fact, is what defense attorneys are saying. And if we remember from a few years ago, the Rolling Stone reported that the FBI consistently invented terror plots in order to jail angry young Muslims.

And there are a lot of things about this story that don't really pass the smell test, as Greenwald notes.

It's clear that Mr. Mohamed isn't a particularly sympathetic character. Entrapment or not, if someone asks you to participate in a terror plot the answer should always be "fuck no." But was he really just going to haul off and blow stuff up if the FBI hadn't gotten involved? I mean, could a 19-year-old high-school graduate whose aspirations included a fishing job in Alaska hatch an elaborate bomb plot all on his lonesome? It requires money and know-how, two things that I doubt Mr. Mohamed really possessed.

So it's interesting that this case formed the news backdrop when I read this Wilkinson piece over at the Economist's Democracy in America blog. Wilkinson notes that terrorism, for all our bluster about it, is exceedingly rare in this country. Indeed, a quick Wikipedia search finds that there have been 49 terror attacks or attempted attacks in the U.S. in my lifetime. And that counts each Unabomber and Eric Rudolph attack separately, it counts non-politically motivated attacks like the Beltway sniper, and it counts domestic crazy people with guns like Jim Adkisson (though interestingly, Wikipedia didn't include school shootings, which I guess it classifies separately). If we talk about terrorism the way we generally think of it - complex, politically motivated attack plots - we're talking maybe ten. And of those ten, only two - Oklahoma City and Sept. 11 - had large amounts of fatalities.

If there were only two successful large-scale terrorist plots in the past 29 years, we can safely say that large-scale terrorism isn't particularly common in this country... but that allowing any terrorist plot to succeed is traumatic and unacceptable. So terrorism is something of an awkward law enforcement issue. It's cataclysmic but rare - so you need significant resources, but if you're just investigating already existing plots, those resources are probably lying dormant for years at a time. Leaving those resources just kinda sitting there isn't really viable politically - politicians like to see results. Which means that it's in the FBI's interest to not just pursue existing terrorists but potential terrorists as well.

Which leads me back to the Portland case. What the FBI did with Mohamed was that they found an angry young Muslim man who they thought might turn into a terrorist one day, turned him into an active terrorist, then arrested him. The problem with this is that we don't know if Mohamed would have become a terrorist had the FBI not been involved. Sure, maybe he becomes the next Faisal Shahzad (the incompetent Times Square bomber). But maybe he grows out of it, like many angry young men, and becomes a productive member of society. Now we'll never know.

So we're caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, we want terrorism to be investigated and thwarted. On the other hand, it's a bad idea to turn people into terrorists when they weren't terrorists already. So how do you walk that line? My answer would be to keep track of the "potential" terrorists, but not do anything until they actually show signs of wanting to start a plot. That's when you move in and arrest them. But I'm not comfortable having the FBI play the part of the precogs in "Minority Report."

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