Were the consequences of underestimating terrorists neither so grave nor so fresh, it would be tempting to look at the seven men indicted on conspiracy charges for plotting to blow up the Sears Tower and laugh. Not so much at the suspects--five American citizens, a legal immigrant from Haiti and an illegal Haitian national, all of whose hardscrabble bios make them seem more sad than sinister--but at those who considered them a real threat to wage, as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales put it, "a full ground war against the United States." FBI deputy director John Pistole conceded that the men, part of a Miami group called Seas of David, were "more aspirational than operational," and its aspirations reeked of ineptitude. When alleged ringleader Narseal Batiste, 32, presented an FBI informant he thought was an al-Qaeda operative with a list of materials necessary for jihad, it did not include explosives. Instead Batiste asked for $50,000, radios, uniforms and steel-toed boots. Was the plan to blow the Sears Tower up or kick it down?
Of course, it once would have been easy to dismiss the four working-class British men who strapped on backpacks and bought Tube tickets. Or the 19 men who imagined they could hijack passenger jets with box cutters. Historically, it's been law enforcement's job to separate the genuinely scary people from the goofballs--particularly when the goofballs are American citizens whose eccentricities, however radical, are protected by the Constitution. But times change, and as shown by last week's indictments and dozens of other arrests over the past five years, the Bush Administration appears less focused on trying to gauge the ability of domestic terrorism suspects to carry out their wildest plots and more on rooting out those who may have the intent, though not yet the ability, to harm the United States.
You could call it the broken-windows theory of domestic terrorism--after James Q. Wilson's and George L. Kelling's much lauded crime policy that suggests that by cracking down on minor offenders, you send a message to the major ones, and sometimes catch them too. The policy, reiterated by FBI director Robert Mueller in a conveniently timed speech late last week, is to never dismiss the grand schemes of small men, even if those men are Americans and their schemes are more dream than reality. "Radicalization often starts with individuals who are frustrated with their lives, with the politics of their home governments," said Mueller. "And as talk moves to action, an extremist can become a terrorist." Says Ron Suskind, author of The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11: "You find a reversal of the general posit that it is sufficient that 100 guilty men go free so that one innocent man is not convicted. It's now sound that 100 innocent men are swept up so that one guilty man not slip away."
At a time when a handful of terrorists can trigger an exponentially larger tragedy, such a policy can seem prudent. But the recent arrests in Miami, and of 17 Canadian residents who allegedly plotted to use fertilizer bombs on sites in Ontario, ultimately raise more questions than they answer about the level of threat. Are these men the tip of the iceberg, with many other home-grown cells lurking below the surface? Or is America so inhospitable to made-in-the-U.S.A. terrorism that street-corner confidence men are all we're producing?