Tuesday, December 7, 2010

On terrorism, Mohamed Osman Mohamud and entrapment

National Review's Andrew C. McCarthy makes the case that Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the man accused of wanting to set off a bomb in Portland, wasn't "entrapped" by overzealous investigators:

No rational human being can be enticed, against his beliefs, into murdering another person, much less murdering thousands of people, as Mohamud hoped and tried very hard to do at Pioneer Courthouse Square on November 26. No amount of money, cajoling, or appeals to anti-Americanism and cultural solidarity can get a person to take such an unspeakable action.

Well, sure. Clearly Mohamud had some darkness in his heart. On the other hand, it's also worth considering this:

The FBI wormed their way into Mohamud. They read his e-mail. They gave him money. They bought the bomb components. They paid for the safe house. They built the test explosive. They pretended to detonate it. Then they built the bomb. They provided not only the cell phone that was supposed to trigger the bomb but also the number code that had to be punched in. 

That's McCarthy's sarcastic -- but accurate -- description of how the case developed. And it's worth considering the old cliché that investigators use when trying to narrow down suspects in big cases: Did the suspect have the means, the motive and the opportunity?

In Mohamud's case, at least, you can argue that he only possessed one leg of that three-legged stool. Without the FBI, he wouldn't have had the means or the opportunity to fake-commit his attack on the Portland Christmas tree lighting. Truth is, lots of people in America have murderous thoughts everyday. Sometimes it's fleeting and momentary; sometimes it's a sustained emotion born of rage or ideology or some mix of the two. The vast majority of people never act on those sparks. But what if they had a buddy egging them on and (say) providing them with a gun — well, what would happen then?

No, it's unlikely that the FBI created a murderous rage in Mohamed Osman Mohamud's heart. But the argument can be made that the FBI catalyzed that rage from impotence and inaction into something more dangerous. In America, at least, the law isn't supposed to judge us purely on the darkest conjurings of our soul; it is acting murderously, not thinking murderously, that is illegal. We know Mohamud had those thoughts. Would he have acted — or tried to do so — without the FBI's help? 

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