Pioneer Square: All We Like Sheep

Zealotry is an equal opportunity destroyer of peace and tranquility. Mohamed Osman Mohamud apparently wanted to destroy ours with a well-placed bomb in Portland, Oregon; some anonymous arsonists wanted to destroy the peace of mind of those who worshipped with Mr. Mohamud at the Salman Al-Farisi Islamic Center in Corvalis. I understand these regrettable acts of violence and attempted violence. What I do not understand is why the Federal Bureau of Investigation felt the need to let things go so far.

Conspiracy theories are a close cousin of theology: The world is but a stage for vast and secret forces. Good struggles against evil, the apparent is but the symbol of some deeper meaning. We need to trust the priests and soothsayers to tell us the meaning of it all. Left to our own devices we would, like sheep, go astray. There is something almost comforting about a world so conceived; it is invested with meaning. Even our most mundane acts and omissions seem somehow significant; what's more, chaos is tamed. A conspiracy theorist and a theologian have an answer for everything.

But these all-encompassing worldviews charge a heavy price for admission. We lost liberty and the joy that comes of life's necessary risk and chaos. The interpreters of events and symbols acquire the power to interpret not just the events defining our lives, but the meaning our lives possess. A theocracy is a dangerous place for dissidents. So is a national secutiry state.

Are there Islamic fundamentalists who want to destroy the West? Yes. Are they dangerous? Yes. Do they inspire fear and revulsion among us? They certainly do in me. Hence, I see the smoldering ruins of Mr. Mohamud's mosque and a secret part of me welcomes the sight. Gotcha, I want to say. It is better to kill than to be killed.

But I am uneasy, even ashamed, of this impilse. An eye for eye makes the world blind. Terrorists win not just by striking us dumb with fear; if they succeed in provoking escalating acts of violence, we can all tip toe to the brink of their apocalyptic vision. It is a trip I do not want to take.

I was stunned to learn over the weekend the extent to which federal law enforcement officials play acted with Mr. Mohamud. Yeah, sure they needed to build a case against him. It is far better to show the extent to which he was willing to go the better to defeat any defense of entrapment. Lawmen did not induce this teenager to play terrorism a la Ferris Bueler. I get that.

But did they really have to go so far as to plant a car loaded with a fake bomb at the Pioneer Square during the annual Christmas tree lighting? Did they have to work with this young man to detonate the fake bomb as thousands of mothers, children and their bedraggled fathers milled about? Admissions by the young man, his efforts to practice at a remote facility, his vitriolic hatred and hope for destruction -- all this was not enough? We haven't netted a senior al Qaada operative here, just some 19-year-old man-child. Odds are this kid could not have anywhere near so close to mayhem had he not had the rapt assistance of a bevy of law enforcement zealots bent on demonstrating their utility to the world. Let's not pretent we've netted one of the Devil's own henchmen.

I caught part of an interview on the national news last night that put the law enforcement sting operation into greater perspective. A traveler was explaining why she felt less aggravated by the TSA shakedowns at airports. After the events in Portland, she realized that terror could happen anywhere, any time. Intrusive new searches were a small price to pay for security, she said. The Portland sting suddenly began to make more sense. This massive game of show and tell made a necessity of what had been, only days earlier, a hated new practice. Score another victory for the trust and obey state.

Psychologists often speak of secondary gain, a latent set of motives that explains a deeper significance to acts otherwise wiithout apparent meaning. Yes, law enforcement should detect and deter terror. But they had a solid case against Mr. Mohamud long before the weekend. They could have moved in at any time. But only by waiting and giving Mr. Mohamud the chance to demonstrate how easy it would be to kill did law enforcement achieve its broader objective of building support for a new, aggressive, and expensive law enforcement posture. Portland's Mayor, Sam Adams, promised greater cooperation with lawmen, distancing himself from a 2005 City Council ordinance that placed limits on municipal cooperation with the F.B.I.'s Joint Terrorism Task Force. 

I am sure than many more Mohamed Osman Mohamud's in the United States, young men ready, willing and able to kill for ideological reasons. We expect lawmen to ferret them out. But we expect the war on terror to be something other than the self-serving theater.

It appears the good people of Portland were never in real danger last week. But they all think they narrowly walked away from death's door. This morning they are thanking the FBI for rescuing them. Today's new heroes ask for little today in return, only that they not be forgotten. They can make us feel safe if we let them. Expanded searches, seizures, wiretaps, surveillance are just the trick. And the Fourth Amendment? Why a time of terror makes greater Government intrusion reasonable. Remember Pioneer Square! All is well in law enforcement circles.

I realize that I embrace the very conspiracy theory I decry. Is the evil government now playing the role of my private Satan? Is my Manichean division of the good liberty loving people preyed upon by the evil depradations of law men as farfetched as the 70 virgins awaiting the next knucklehead who blows himself to smithereens? Perhaps. But we had a long tradition of hostility to government in this country before we went to war on terror a decade ago. All that is changing, and the beneficiaries of this change are the men and women who want desparately to tell us all what we most do to be safe. What they won't tell us is how we can protect ourselves against them.


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