Last Saturday, I did a seven-hour continuing legal education workshop entitled "Counter Terrorism Issues." The title was taken from my newest textbook of the same name. Thirty-six local lawyers turned out for the program, which included a look at the case of Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army major who killed 13 of his comrades at Fort Hood some four years ago. Charged with 13 counts of pre-mediated murder, Hasan's court martial started on Tuesday, August 6th.
The lead story on August 6th in this newspaper was not, however, the start of Hasan's trial. The headline across the top of the Times News read, "3 shot to death at Ross Twp. Municipal meeting."
The companion photo showed a dilapidated shanty surrounded by junk. The photo inset was of a man who looked like Santa Claus with sunglasses. Apparently this guy had a beef with the municipality, which led him to come into a township meeting with his gun blazing. Not satisfied with the damage done on his first attempt, he reportedly went back to his car for another weapon. As is often the case, these days, a local hero subdued him and shot him with the killer's own gun, before he could kill again.
These two events, occurring on the same day, have kept me cogitating about stuff I - we? - would just as soon ignore, if only we could.
At the CLE workshop last week, I raised the question of what impact the War on Terror has had on our civil liberties, since September 11, 2001. The answer, I suggested, is that - those annoying, delaying airport searches aside - most of us have not been impacted very much at all. That assertion even applies to "garden variety" criminals.
I noted, for example, that in the past two years the U.S. Supreme Court has issued four new opinions on our right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Three of those four cases came down on the side of us citizens and against the powers that be. Without a warrant, the police cannot put a GPS on the outside of a suspect's car… cannot take a blood sample during a DUI arrest… and cannot send a sniffer mutt onto a suspected dealer's front porch in search of drugs.
This is all good news for most Americans. However, let the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office label you a "terrorist" or an "enemy combatant," and all bets are off.
Consider for instance, the so-called "Fort Dix Five." These are five young Muslim-Americans who, during a Pocono vacation, videoed themselves firing automatic weapons and shouting, "Allahu Akbar." After one of the brothers took the video to a local store in Cherry Hill to have DVDs burned, and the clerk alerted the FBI, the "gang" was infiltrated by an informant. When they tried to buy more weapons, the FBI sting operation resulted in their arrests. At trial they were accused of plotting to attack South Jersey's Fort Dix. They are now serving life sentences, some in solitary confinement, at the supermax facility in Colorado.
I take no truck with terrorists, or any other criminals for that matter. But bear in mind that these five 20-something fellas never shot anybody. They never even discussed Fort Dix until the much-older informant (who has a police record and who once tried to get a man murdered back home in Egypt) brought it up.
The surveillance tapes revealed that he asked these guys some 400 times when they were actually going to act on their tough talk. To my way of thinking, their treatment by the criminal justice system was a tad harsh.
A controversy is swirling on the periphery of Major Hasan's court martial. Some of the survivors of his shooting spree have sued Uncle Sam. Their beef is that the Army has classified the spree as workplace violence, rather than a terrorist attack. This means that they are only eligible for regular disability benefits, rather than Purple Hearts and the apparently more substantial payments that come with being shot in combat.
I sympathize with their plight, and I recognize that Hasan has become ever more militant in his public posturing - growing a beard, for instance - during the past four years. He seems to be seeking martyrdom, having admitted to owning the murder weapon… without ever having been asked.
All the same, I believe that Hasan and the Ross Township shooter should be treated the same: two cold-blooded murderers, one apparently motivated by religious extremism, the other by a more personal grievance ("They stole my land!"), but of the same ilk.
A dozen years after 9/11 America has not fallen to bin Laden's Jihad. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have wound down with Uncle Sam declaring victory and heading home. Osama is dead and Obama is under fire for NSA snooping and drone attacks on U.S. citizens. The time is now to treat "terrorists" the same as all other stone killers, no better and no worse. Our civil liberties - and we ourselves - will be the beneficiaries.
I can't remember a time in my life when the word "terrorism" wasn't a buzzword used either to incite fear or fervor. My earliest memory of being aware of terrorism as its own creature was on September 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers fell and I was in my middle school art class. We made American flags out of construction paper and glue to hang in the school windows, and then I went rollerblading.
In short, I was too young to understand how the world changed that day. Things seemed the same, and by the time they didn't anymore, the transformation had happened so subtly over so many years of my life, that I had barely noticed.
To me, terrorism is the ghost of bin Laden and taking your shoes off at the airport. It's scary if you think about it, but for the most part, I don't even notice.
There are things that scare me much more than the ghost of bin Laden, and they might not be the things you'd expect. I'm not afraid of those five young men who may or may not have been plotting to shoot people down with automatic weapons. I'm not afraid of James Eagan Holmes or Adam Lanza.
I'm afraid of a country that makes buying guns so painfully easy that teenagers can order them online. I'm afraid of a country that values money over mental health, rehabilitation, and a constructive prison system. I'm afraid of a country that considers an eye for an eye a fair price, and doles out the harshest punishment for every crime, violent or not. Most of all, I'm afraid of the pervasive stupidity that perpetuates these practices, year after year.
I'm tired of being told whom I should be afraid of. Our problems are bigger than any individual.