Friday, June 23, 2006

Conspiracy for Terror is Crime

A new story on the wires is that the FBI has arrested a number of people for planning attacks on commercial and government buildings throughout the United States. This so called “home grown” group of people wanted to work for Al Qaeda. Their mistake was attempting to contact Al Qaeda through a federal agent posing as an Al Qaeda representative. They undertook all sorts of measures including swearing an oath to Al Qaeda and engaging in a variety of reconnaissance in equipping. They were then arrested.

On the radio this morning when I heard this story reported, a variety of reporters questioned whether or not it was really appropriate to arrest and prosecute these people since they had not yet obtained any explosives or other weapons, and since they thought that they might be too amateurish to actually carry out their plans. In a sense, these comments are quite remarkable.

Criminals are commonly not particularly clever. They very often lack the actual means to successfully carry out their crimes. When someone attempts to rob a bank with a squirt gun that looks like a pistol, we still arrest them for bank robbery. While it is true that people who actually have the ability to do evil and have done evil have engaged in a more serious crime than those who merely wished to do evil and began acting upon it, we still punish people for having evil wishes so long as they take affirmative actions toward carrying out those wishes. Such conspiracies have been regarded as criminal actions in the western world since the late Middle Ages. Today we have greater protections against arrest for conspiracy. In general we have a greater emphasis on the need for proof of acts taken in furtherance of the conspiracy. We have also narrowed the scope of criminal conspiracy laws like RICO, the Racketeering and Corrupt Practices Act. Originally passed to prosecute mobsters, RICO had been misused to attack those protesting laws they considered illegal, etc. but has been put back in proper context by the high court.

Today our conspiracy laws are fairly reasonable. There is no reason to be surprised about the seven would-be jihadis being prosecuted. They clearly had criminal intentions and they acted for many weeks seeking to carry out those evil intentions. But for the fact that they ran into a government agent instead of a genuine Al Qaeda representative, they undoubtedly would have hurt people, even if they had not succeeded in carrying out the most grandiose of their schemes.

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