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Monthly Archives: May 2009

We live in a nation of laws, and it’s right that we enforce those laws. It is illegal, for example, to bomb houses of worship, and it is also illegal to shoot down airplanes, be they Air National Guard planes or other planes. Furthermore, it is illegal to purchase certain firearms or certain other weapons, and as the FBI correctly claims, albeit barely suppressing their gleeful excitement, it is also illegal to transport those illegally gotten items across state lines (“the defendants, at least one of whom traveled in and caused another to travel in interstate commerce in furtherance of the offense”). I am fortunate to live in a nation of laws, which provides institutions of justice for all. We sometimes find that one institution has taken pains to conduct an investigation, bring charges, and prosecute, whilst another institution takes equally great pains to find fault with that investigation, those charges, that prosecution, etc. This is as it should be.
The New York Times’s coverage of the alleged plot appears to cover all the angles: the arrests themselves (and the foiling of the attempted bombing!), assurances that the bombers acted alone, the impact that the attempted bombing has had in the quiet (reports stop just short of “bucolic”) Riverdale neighborhood, the role that an informant may have played in the plot, and — perhaps most importantly — a bit of personal history behind each of the alleged terrorists.
This story is rich, so perhaps it is not surprising that within two days, The Times had four stories out (and linked a fifth one on “<a href=”http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/22/nyregion/22nyc.html?ref=nyregion”>”Interfaith Understanding”</a> “winning” out while a bomb “plot” “loses”).
There’s no substitute for reading the articles themselves, or for checking out the actual criminal complaint (The Times <a href=”http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/nyregion/20090520-bomb-plot-arrests/complaint.pdf”>provides it</a>) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s press release (<a href=”http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/nyregion/20090520-bomb-plot-arrests/press-release.pdf”>also provided</a>).
In a May 22 article (<a href=”http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/23/nyregion/23informant.html?ref=nyregion”>Informer’s Role in Bombing Plot</a>), New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly is quoted as saying, “Any defense attorney worth his salt is going to argue entrapment,” but he goes on to say that, according to “the law,” one must be “otherwise not disposed to do the crime” in order to “successfully use the defense of entrapment.” And, presumably, because it will be simple to demonstrate that these suspects came up with the plan on their own before submitting to their informant-friend for his appraisal and approval, and because it will also be easy enough to demonstrate an anti-Semitic, anti-U.S.-military bent in what amounts to their guiding philosophy, at least according to Commissioner Kelly, entrapment can’t work.
There’s an unsettling aspect to the relationship between the informant and the accused, though. If it doesn’t rise to the level of entrapment, then maybe entrapment isn’t written broadly enough. Or maybe there’s something worse than entrapment.
The Times’s coverage notes that the four accused men “celebrated” once they had accumulated their weapons. They had skittishly traveled to the place their informant told them they could buy those weapons — a place in Connecticut, which necessitated crossing a state line — neatly adding one more important Federal charge to the complaint. They had feared being followed, drove around for hours, and succesfully brought their purchases safely home (back across the state border).
Of course, the warehouse they went to in Connecticut was wired, their storage facility was wired, and in all likelihood, their friend-informant was wired, so whether they were being followed in their car seems a relatively small point.
There’s a detail in this “celebration” that may be important. Why would four grown men, four serious men, with a mission of violence and hate, be celebrating such a relatively small “success” — they had no reason to believe it would be difficult to accomplish this part of the mission. The hard part, if it can even be called that, would be planting the bomb at an unsuspecting civilian target and shooting down an unsuspecting airplane. That’s the hard part, and even that seems pretty simple. So why celebrate?
I put it to you that this celebration may actually have been one of the happiest moments in these men’s lives. Especially the guy who is apparently schizophrenic and collects his own urine in jars. These men wanted to be happy. To have accomplished something — anything. Especially if it went toward a broader ideal — something noble. These are the aspirations that we all have, and that make us human. The particular aspirations of these men are ugly because they’ve been thwarted. They’re a sick bonsai tree instead of a Sycamore, and the men themselves are not entirely to blame for this condition.
All four are ex-cons, and they don’t have much else in common, except perhaps that they are Black men from poor families. Safe, then, to assume that they have not been given the same opportunities as those afforded their White peers from the suburbs. They may not feel as though they are listened to, or that their society sees in them any particular value. Their invisibility has been proven real in all systems except that of criminal justice, where they are, of course, all too visible.
So when a seemingly important member of society — a brother Muslim in a stereotype-mobile of a black Mercedes shows up at their Mosque — wants to talk to them, they might be particularly susceptible to the allure of that attention. While other members of the Mosque — members, perhaps, with families, with long-standing ties to the communities, with support systems that go beyond a handful of ex-convicts, but stretch back to an ethnic bond or a home-country — tend to ignore the flashy Mercedes man (even assuming that he is a government informant, probably because he seems to have driven straight over from central casting…), these guys listen up.
Their new friend says he has ties to terror organizations. He offers them jobs. But more importantly, as the criminal complaint details, he listens to them. They get to talk to him the way they talk to each other, but for the first time, they’re talking to someone who’s not already in their club, and he’s paying attention.
So they want him to approve. He becomes their benign authority figure – the father who, in each of their cases, they never had.
The allegation is that buying rockets and explosives was their idea. But why was it their idea? It’s carefully constructed so as not to be entrapment, at least as according to Commissioner Kelly.
But it’s worse, because it cynically plays on a deep-seated psychological need that anyone could have predicted these guys would have. And it’s worse still because a failing education system, urban decay, and a virulent underlying strain of societal racism are all behind the conditions that created that deep psychological need (the need to be listened to, to be approved of, to matter….).
So while it’s deplorable and cynical that we may be using our FBI informants to create hapless would-be terrorists out of erstwhile crackheads (instead of finding actual, pre-existing terrorists, and instead, too, of treating these crackheads to the kind of rehab and re-entry that we provide to every athlete and politician with a drug or sex addiction), and while it seems doubly wrong to be setting up these stings in places where we’re most likely to nab the weakest, most disenfranchised members of our community (as opposed to wealthy suburban high schools where we might actually find some evil lurking in broad daylight), it seems especially important to consider whether entrapment is sufficiently defined.
My cousin lives in a building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side where, because of the Jewish Sabbath, some residents will not press the buttons of the elevator because that constitutes “work.” Instead, they stand in the elevator and say, “It would be very nice if this elevator would stop on the seventh floor.” And someone else — someone who is allowed to do “work” on the Sabbath, will press the button. It’s not entrapment.
If I know you want something from me, and I want you to do something for me, I don’t always have to come right out and ask you to do it. I can simply let you know how nice it would be if the thing I want you to do could get done. Then, if you think doing that thing might help you get the thing you want from me, you’ll do it. And then you’ll be in federal prison for fifteen years.
Which, by the way, is where the informant-friend would’ve been if he hadn’t agreed to start driving a black Mercedes and pretending to be just exactly like the bad guys in 24.

We live in a nation of laws, and it’s right that we enforce those laws. It is illegal, for example, to bomb houses of worship, and it is also illegal to shoot down airplanes, be they Air National Guard planes or other planes. Furthermore, it is illegal to purchase certain firearms or certain other weapons, and as the FBI correctly claims, albeit barely suppressing their gleeful excitement, it is illegal to transport those illegally gotten items across state lines (“the defendants, at least one of whom traveled in and caused another to travel in interstate commerce in furtherance of the offense”). We are lucky to live in a nation of laws.

The New York Times’s coverage of the alleged plot appears to cover all the angles: the arrests themselves (and the foiling of the attempted bombing!), assurances that the bombers acted alone, the impact that the attempted bombing has had in the quiet (reports stop just short of “bucolic”) Riverdale neighborhood, the role that an informant may have played in the plot, and — perhaps most importantly — a bit of personal history behind each of the alleged terrorists.

This story is rich, so perhaps it is not surprising that within two days, The Times had four stories out (and linked a fifth one on “Interfaith Understanding” “winning” out while a bomb “plot” “loses”).

There’s no substitute for reading the articles themselves, or for checking out the actual criminal complaint (The Times provides it) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s press release (also provided).

In a May 22 article (Informer’s Role in Bombing Plot), New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly is quoted as saying, “Any defense attorney worth his salt is going to argue entrapment,” but he goes on to say that, according to “the law,” one must be “otherwise not disposed to do the crime” in order to “successfully use the defense of entrapment.” And, presumably, because it will be simple to demonstrate that these suspects came up with the plan on their own before submitting to their informant-friend for his appraisal and approval, and because it will also be easy enough to demonstrate an anti-Semitic, anti-U.S.-military bent in what amounts to their guiding philosophy, at least according to Commissioner Kelly, entrapment can’t work. (Why even have a trial, one wonders?)

There’s an unsettling aspect to the relationship between the informant and the accused, though. If it doesn’t rise to the level of entrapment, then maybe entrapment isn’t written broadly enough. Or maybe there’s something worse than entrapment.

The Times’s coverage notes that the four accused men “celebrated” once they had accumulated their weapons. They had skittishly traveled to the place their informant told them they could buy those weapons — a place in Connecticut, which necessitated crossing a state line — neatly adding one more important Federal charge to the complaint. They had feared being followed, drove around for hours, and succesfully brought their purchases safely home (back across the state border).

Of course, the warehouse they went to in Connecticut was wired, their storage facility was wired, and in all likelihood, their friend-informant was wired, so whether they were being followed in their car seems a relatively small point.

There’s a detail in this “celebration” that may be important. Why would four grown men, four serious men, with a mission of violence and hate, be celebrating such a relatively small “success” — they had no reason to believe it would be difficult to accomplish this part of the mission. The hard part, if it can even be called that, would be planting the bomb at an unsuspecting civilian target and shooting down an unsuspecting airplane. That’s the hard part, and even that seems pretty simple. So why celebrate?

This celebration may actually have been one of the happiest moments in these men’s lives. Especially the guy who is apparently schizophrenic and collects his own urine in jars. These men wanted to be happy, to have accomplished something — anything. Especially if it went toward a broader ideal — something noble. These are the aspirations that we all have, and that make us human. The particular aspirations of these men are ugly at least in part because they’ve been thwarted. They’re a sick, warped Bonsai instead of an upstanding Sycamore, and the men themselves are not entirely to blame for this condition. (It is a cruel twist that “aspirational” in this case also means, in terms of law enforcement, that the suspects “wanted to do something but had no weapons or explosives.”)

All four are ex-cons, and they don’t have much else in common, except perhaps that they are Black men from poor families. Safe, then, to assume that they have not been given the same opportunities as those afforded their White peers from the suburbs. They may not feel as though they are listened to, or that their society sees in them any particularly high value. Their invisibility has been proven real in many systems with the notable exception of the criminal justice system, where they are, of course, all too visible.

So when a seemingly important member of society — a brother Muslim in a stereotype-mobile of a black Mercedes shows up at their Mosque — wants to talk to them, they might be particularly susceptible to the allure of that attention. While other members of the Mosque — members, perhaps, with families, with long-standing ties to the communities, with support systems that go beyond a handful of ex-convicts, but stretch back to an ethnic bond or a home-country — tend to ignore the flashy Mercedes man (even assuming that he is a government informant, probably because he seems to have driven straight over from central casting…), these guys listen up.

Their new friend says he has ties to terror organizations. He offers them jobs. But more importantly, as the criminal complaint details, he listens to them. They get to talk to him the way they talk to each other, but for the first time, they’re talking to someone who’s not already in their club, and he’s paying attention.

So they want him to approve. He becomes their benign authority figure – the father who, in each of their cases, they never had.

The allegation is that buying rockets and explosives was their idea. But why was it their idea? It’s carefully constructed so as not to be entrapment, at least as according to Commissioner Kelly.

But it’s worse, because it cynically plays on a deep-seated psychological need that anyone could have predicted these guys would have. And it’s worse still because a failing education system, urban decay, and a virulent underlying strain of societal racism are all behind the conditions that created that deep psychological need (the need to be listened to, to be approved of, to matter….).

So while it’s deplorable and cynical that we may be using our FBI informants to create hapless would-be terrorists out of erstwhile crackheads (instead of finding actual, pre-existing terrorists, and instead, too, of treating these crackheads to the kind of rehab and re-entry that we provide to every athlete and politician with a drug or sex addiction), and while it seems doubly wrong to be setting up these stings in places where we’re most likely to nab the weakest, most disenfranchised members of our community (as opposed to wealthy suburban high schools where we might actually find some evil lurking in broad daylight), it seems especially important to consider whether entrapment is sufficiently defined.

My cousin lives in a building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side where, because of the Jewish Sabbath, some residents will not press the buttons of the elevator because that constitutes “work.” Instead, they stand in the elevator and say, “It would be very nice if this elevator would stop on the seventh floor.” And someone else — someone who is allowed to do “work” on the Sabbath, will press the button. It’s not entrapment.

If I know you want something from me, and I want you to do something for me, I don’t always have to come right out and ask you to do it. I can simply let you know how nice it would be if the thing I want you to do could get done. Then, if you think doing that thing might help you get the thing you want from me, you’ll do it. And then you’ll be in federal prison for fifteen years.

Which, by the way, is where the informant-friend would’ve been if he hadn’t agreed to start driving a black Mercedes and pretending to be just exactly like the bad guys in 24.