photo by Anthony G. Reyes
If the American ideal of freedom is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, should an “aspirational terrorist” be free to pursue his dream?
This is not a rhetorical question – or at least it is not rhetorical in San Francisco (where else?), where federal authorities have accused a former Marine of plotting a bombing and shooting at the popular Pier 39 tourist attraction near Fisherman’s Wharf.
Everitt Aaron Jameson, a 26-year-old from Modesto, California, came to law enforcement’s attention due to his social media activity, which allegedly included posts sympathetic to the Islamic State group. FBI agents, posing as terrorist sympathizers, began communicating with Jameson; in these exchanges, Jameson reportedly expressed admiration for past terrorist incidents including the 2015 San Bernardino shooting and the Oct. 31 attack in New York City, in which a truck driver killed eight people by plowing into a pedestrian pathway. Jameson also allegedly offered support to a planned San Francisco attack in the form of money, access to a truck and his own experience as a Marine-trained sharpshooter.
The FBI says that undercover agents met with Jameson in person. At this meeting, the FBI contended that he requested “ammunition, powder, tubing and nails,” and suggested he would assemble pipe bombs from these materials. The indictment further says that Jameson asked for remote timing devices from a person he believed was working for the Islamic State group and “described how to use such destructive devices in an attack on Pier 39 in San Francisco, California to funnel people into [an] area in order to shoot them.” All of this was sufficient for the FBI to secure a warrant to search Jameson’s home; Jameson was arrested and charged two days later.
When government agents resort to coercion, trickery or similar tactics to get someone to commit a crime, it is entrapment. Courts won’t ordinarily honor the prosecution of a crime that someone did not intend to commit other than for the actions of the authorities themselves.
However, if someone does intend to commit a crime, authorities need not wait for carnage to happen before they move in. They can provide the “aspirational” criminal with the apparent opportunity to commit that crime to prevent bad things from happening if the aspiring evildoer has a genuine chance to cause mayhem.
To use a nonterrorism example, it would not be entrapment for an undercover investigator to offer a restaurant inspector a bribe in return for failing to report unsanitary conditions in a kitchen. An honest inspector would, at a minimum, refuse the bribe, and probably report the attempted bribery too.
So when someone professes support for a recent terrorist incident – in this case, the attack in lower Manhattan last Halloween – and indicates that he might be inclined to follow suit, it is not entrapment for authorities to reach out and ask if he is looking for help. Anyone who is really all talk will either ignore the message, tell the would-be enabler to go away, or go to the authorities himself. If, instead, he asks for tangible assistance, such as providing a timer for an explosive, we are looking at a terrorist. “Aspirational” or “operational” is a distinction without a difference, except that in the former case the individual has not yet seized an opportunity to hurt anyone.
Accusation is not the same as proof, of course. Jameson has not admitted to or been convicted of any crime, and I do not assume he is guilty. It is profoundly unhelpful, however – to Jameson, to his family and community, and to the citizenry at large – for his defenders to argue that it is wrong for authorities to target so-called aspirational terrorists. People who don’t intend to smoke generally don’t ask for cigarettes. People who don’t intend to make bombs generally don’t brag about consulting bomb-making manuals or ask for materials necessary to make a working explosive.
It is understandable that Jameson’s family is rallying around him with a classic “he would never do such a thing” argument. For all I know, they are correct. But if the authorities can prove the case against Jameson, then his relatives are simply ignorant of a violent side of the person they think they know. We have seen it countless times before. Even years after the 9/11 attacks, the father of ringleader Mohamed Atta denied that his lost son could have been involved.
Aspirational veterinarians and teachers and firefighters deserve all the help we can give them in reaching their goals. Aspirational terrorists deserve to be stopped.