Jul/Aug 2009 Salon

Portrait of a Terrorist

by Thomas J. Hubschman

"It's hard to envision a more chilling plot," Eric Snyder, an assistant United States attorney, said on Thursday in federal court in Manhattan. "These are extremely violent men. These are men who eagerly embrace an opportunity" to "bring deaths to Jews."

That's a quote from the New York Times front page story of May 22, 2009 by Michael Wilson about an alleged plot by three Americans and a Haitian to bomb two Bronx synagogues and shoot down an aircraft out of McGuire Air Force base. A second story on the same subject the following day covered the role of the informer, more an agent provocateur, who recruited, encouraged and then provided the alleged terrorists with false bombs and the empty shell of a Stinger missile.

Terrorism, real terrorism, is no joke. I listened to the sirens of fire trucks as they raced down a highway a block from where I live, rushing to Manhattan where dozens of them were to meet their deaths along with thousands of people trapped on the upper floors of the World Trade Center buildings. A longtime friend was on one of the floors just below where one of the aircraft hit and managed to get out safely. Another neighbor was trapped in one of the stores on the ground level of WTC2 until someone had the good sense to order the doors be unlocked. I could have watched the holocaust play out from the rooftop of my building but chose not to do so, and to this day have not been able to look on the hole in the ground where those big buildings stood. I don't take terrorism lightly.

The plotters and perpetrators of the attacks on New York and Washington September 11, 2001 were sophisticated men. Some of them had university degrees and were capable of taking a well-thought-out plan from concept to reality over many stages and over an extended period of time. We prefer to think of those who would do us harm as ignorant, Koran-toting crazies. Such was certainly not the case on 9/11.

Contrast that situation with the terrorists of that Times story. Though three of the alleged perpetrators spent time in prison for drug selling or purse snatching, they did not meet there but were brought together by a government agent who was guaranteeing his own freedom from prosecution by acting on the FBI's behalf as a recruiter of terrorists. He hung out at mosques in the area of Newburg, NY, flashing a fancy car and lots of money, talking up jihad and generally making a nuisance of himself to the imam and the rest of the mosque members, except for losers like the more casual attendees, recently out of prison, whose confidence he eventually gained. Many of the mosque's members and clergy figured him for a government man from the start. But not our intrepid quartet, who accepted his free lunches at a local diner and were impressed by his claim that he was representing a Pakistani militant group. You get the impression reading the Times stories that if his patsies had been a few years younger the FBI informant could have lured them into his car with the promise of ice cream cones.

As for their being "extremely violent men," the evidence for that, apart from their recorded intentions to blow up some of their fellow Americans and shoot down a military aircraft, was a shooting spree with a BB gun and a bit of senseless braggadocio on the part of one who told the informant that instead of paying $700 for an illegal gun he bought from a gang member he would have killed the man and taken the gun for nothing if the informant hadn't been with him at the time.

Everything the "terrorists" did and said throughout this entire episode was recorded by the government, from their pizza-party plotting to their trip to an FBI-commandeered warehouse in Connecticut to pick up the faux bombs and Stinger missile, to the planting of those bombs at synagogues in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. If the government had been filming a full-length instructional documentary, they could not have covered the affair more thoroughly. Nor could the leading actor, the government informant, come across as more obvious or his apprentices more gullible. It's a script worthy of one of those sex or drug films out of the thirties or fifties in which teenagers are portrayed as idiots and their tempters as evil incarnate.

There is almost a tongue-in-cheek feel to the Times story despite its front-page prominence and serious intent. The reporter sometimes seems to be trying to mitigate the force of the government's insistence that this was an horrendous crime in the making that would surely have taken place were it not for the FBI's intervention. The accounts of the alleged plotters' smalltime criminal histories and even the pathetic rejection of one by his mother for announcing his conversion to Islam (it's made clear the four men's Islamic credentials range from thin to non-existent) elicit as much embarrassment as outrage. This comes as a welcome tack from a news organ that was as instrumental as William Randolph Hearst's famous "yellow-sheet journalism" in the US going to war with Spain in 1898, during its own ginning up the war in Iraq in 2002 with shameless front-page repetition of administration propaganda in the form of inside information about Saddam Hussein's weapons and intentions.

No reason is suggested in the Times story for the alleged terrorists' hatred of Jews. It's mentioned as if antisemitism were a given, as if being a terrorist who wants to shoot down an Air Force jet would of course mean wanting to blow up synagogues as well. One of the plotters did make the claim that his parents were killed in Afghanistan—a claim immediately denied by his family—but none of them are quoted as saying they were going to do anything as a result of US support for Israeli's treatment of Palestinians or giving any other reason for attacking Jewish houses of worship. For many people, apparently the staff at the New York Times included, no reasons are required for antisemitism. As my Jewish friend's mother told him 75 years ago, "Everyone hates the Jews." Even if that were true—and it's less true in the present-day US than it's ever been in Jewish history if polls and Jewish authors and scholars like JJ Goldberg and Richard Novick are to be believed—a serious newspaper like the Times could be expected to at least speculate about what specific reasons the four men had for their hatred of Jews, especially since their every word seems to have been recorded. Given the lameness of everything else about them, one suspects their antisemitism is about as inchoate as was their ability to spot a government plant.

What is the purpose to this kind of sting operation? Is it to make the FBI look like it's on the ball guarding us from Islamic fundamentalism? If so, they must think we are as gullible as their four alleged terrorists. Real law enforcement agencies actually are doing good work discovering real terrorist plots, mostly abroad. The New York police department is one. The FBI, for all I know, may be doing good work itself. Why, then, the need for a scam like this, replete with the mandatory posing and frowning in photographs of the mayor and government officials in front of the synagogues that were targeted for destruction? Why create a terrorist plot out of next to nothing, using characters who would probably never have accomplished anything without the instigation and enabling of a government agent?

What impressed me most about the criminal quartet is their ignorance. I'd say "innocence" if the ultimate intent of their plot were not so reprehensible even if it may well have remained fanciful if the FBI plant hadn't come along. I've heard people voice wishes to commit equally horrendous deeds—though more likely to blow up mosques or bomb Muslim cities—and who knows how far they might go if someone with attractive credentials offered them enough free lunches and free explosives. But the back stories to the alleged perpetrators in this case remind me of the kind of shocking naivety combined with deep resentment I've heard and overheard over the years from bitter young men as a result of estrangement from family because of chronic antisocial behavior. There's a thirst for something meaningful to fill the big void left by little more than a grade-school education and a lifetime of urban myth and paranoia. Combine that with the reality of a society that still disadvantages people of African descent and you have marginalized, angry men all too susceptible to a cause that seems to give them an enemy they can lash out at and in the process redeem some sense of their own worth.

Unlike on 9/11, I felt a personal interest in both parties concerned in this recent plot, the alleged perpetrators as well as the intended victims. These men weren't foreign nationals—at least three of them weren't, the fourth being an illegal from Haiti—but fellow Americans, however marginalized. They remind me of people I used to service when I worked for the welfare department of this city and later as a narcotic parole officer. After a few months on the job at Welfare it struck me that I was just a kind of janitor responsible for cleaning up the social consequences of a society that feels little responsibility for those who can not, or are denied access to, participation in the money-making engine that is the American economy. Society—in this case the city of New York—would not allow such useless people to die of starvation, but it acknowledged little other responsibility for them. It, we, certainly did not consider them to be a potential resource, not even an economic one, not when there were plenty of immigrants and migrants ready to take jobs that welfare recipients would have to be trained to perform.

You can't write off a segment of society, the school dropouts and petty criminals, and expect all those people to lead docile useless lives, though most will leave the rest of us alone, taking out their rage on themselves or their neighbors. I've known too many young men whose MO fits that of at least a couple of the "terrorist" quartet. They will never bomb anyone, or even consider doing so. But they go through life, already have in some cases, disaffected at best, sometimes deeply embittered, unable to distinguish between the real social disadvantages they face and the imaginary ones they use as an excuse for not accepting responsibility for themselves, preferring self-pity and anger to compromise. They are not all societal dropouts. Most hold down jobs and try to raise families, though self-perpetuating myths about their own victimhood make everything they attempt precarious and in some cases doomed to failure.

This was what I saw in the photos of those four men. I saw American ignorance, American gullibility, even American willingness to espouse the cause of the downtrodden, however misguided.

After the massacre several years back of several Palestinians by an ex-pat American as they prayed in a mosque in the Occupied Territories, I heard a caller to a local radio show say the man was "more to be pitied than censured." That was going too far, and most of those who heard the caller, including the show's host, knew it. But even if that man was deranged, he was acting out a deed that is implicit in the attitude not just of the so-called settlers of the West Bank but of all their misinformed and sometimes willfully ignorant enablers in the United States, that caller among them.

It's not a situation unique to one religious or ethnic group. The same misguided loyalty prevailed among many Americans of Irish descent throughout the period of the "troubles," which for some lasted from the 1920s until the Good Friday Accords and even to this day. For the sake of that loyalty, rooted as are most such blind allegiances in some kind of historical fact however remote or distorted, men and women will undertake the worst kind of violence. It took the massacre in Omagh to finally convince the last holdouts that whatever the justice of the Catholic cause in Northern Ireland, the indiscriminate murder of children, women and men was not justified. Would that we could all see the consequences of those "smart bombs" with which our government slaughters civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan as graphically as we saw the slaughter of the people in Omagh.

There's a lot of talk about how ignorance and poverty help breed terrorists in other parts of the world. But they do the same thing here. If there was any truth to that talk-show caller's absurd comment—though I doubt she meant it this way—it is that that Israeli mass murderer was the product of a closed and, at least morally, ignorant mentality that he was merely giving logical expression to. The fact that he was educated, a medical doctor, and the occupier rather than the victim doesn't seem to make any difference. He is brother to the three American members of the bumbling quartet that is accused of trying to blow up synagogues and shoot down American military aircraft.

Nurture is not by itself enough. It matters what we are nurtured on. Racist attitudes, like every other hatred, is not the product only of one class, ethnicity or religion. PhDs are no less exempt from it than are high-school dropouts. But if we write off those who fall out of the mainstream, we risk someone else adopting them as their own for their own reasons, which may end up coming back to bite us, or blow us up. This is not the principle reason why we should not neglect our fellow citizens, but if we have no other to motivate us, it will do.


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